“y.a.l.a.” – m.i.a. (2013)

M.I.A._-_Y.A.L.A.

In the last two or three years, reading has become one of my favorite hobbies.  I’m practically on a new book every week.  Everything is tracked on a spreadsheet including what I have read, when I read it, and what I’m going to read next.  My list of books to read always changes based on library availability, date of release, and general interest at that time.  And I like to keep things diverse, too.  I mostly read non-fiction, but I do enjoy a good novel or graphic novel once in a while.  To help keep things diverse, I compile my reading list based on my interest, recommendation from friends, and author interviews on shows like Fresh Air or Real Time with Bill Maher.

Reading wasn’t something I really did.  Of course, I read books while in school.  However, unless I really cared about a subject or author, I really didn’t read for leisure.  When I started becoming an active reader, I picked up my first book November 2014; my first book in four years.  There’s a story as to how I became a voracious reader, but I’ll save that for another entry.

One activity I engage in to keep me a healthy and well-rounded reader is participating in a book club.  Though, you can’t just join any book club.  There’s so much to consider when participating in a book club.  You have to be interested in the book selections, enjoy the company of people around you, and find the time to actually do it.  Finding the right book club for you is like trying shoes.  You have to go through all sorts of styles before finding the right fit.

I like the idea of book clubs on the surface level, but it is different when you actually go.  My first book club I went to was last year.  I went once.  The people were fine and the book selection was fine (Bonk by Mary Roach), but I just didn’t feel like I really belonged.  Prior to that, the only club I went to was one organized by a colleague from CHIRP, the community radio station I volunteer with.  I only went to one meeting.  Not because I didn’t have any fun or enjoyed the book, but because CHIRP’s book club wouldn’t meet again for another year.  The organizer had just been really busy.

Since October, the CHIRP Radio book club has picked back up and meeting every other month.  And I really like it.  Most of the attendees are friends and colleagues, plus we read books on music.  Consistent themes in a book club are an underrated aspect of the experience.

Last week, the book club was meeting to discuss the latest selection Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus.  In short, this book was a history of the Riot Grrrl movement that elevated girls’ and women’s role in the music scene, blended punk rock and fashion, and is attributed to the creation and development of third-wave feminism.  Unfortunately, the Riot Grrrl movement only last for a few years in the early 1990s.

Due to a number of factors such as rainy weather and busy schedules, most of the regulars didn’t show up.  It looked like it was just going to by one of my colleagues and me.  We were even debating on adjusting the normal book club schedule to accommodate such a low turnout.  However, right on time, two women who I didn’t know and were not a part of CHIRP Radio came to attend the book club.

I had volunteered prior to the meeting to lead the book discussion.  Not because I consider myself an authority on feminism or Riot Grrrl specifically, but I just really enjoy talking about books.  My colleague, an educated and fun woman, had me start off the discussion.  I introduced the book and started to summarize the key points when I had a sudden realization.  I was the only man there.  I was the only man there discussing a book about a feminist movement.  I was the only man there discussing a book about a feminist movement to a group of women.  The irony was slowly sinking in.  I nervously laughed it off, addressed the male elephant in the room, and passed off the role of discussion leader to my colleague who had also wondered why I wanted to lead this discussion (Again, I just like talking about books).

Our discussion on the book was fascinating and enlightening.  It was a comfortable space where we shared out opinions and analyses involving the Riot Grrrl movement including what the flaws were, why was the movement so short, or what they could have done to keep it going.  Naturally, since the movement is so heavily associated with feminism, we talked a lot about feminism.  Specifically, what feminism meant to the girls and women in this movement and comparing it the previous feminist waves.

While I am certainly no authority of feminism, I do consider myself a feminist.  And despite my nervousness earlier when introducing the book, I was able to engage actively and navigate very difficult topics.  My colleague had teased me by saying this was a safe space and that it was okay to discuss these things.  That certainly helped and was funny.  I am a straight cisgender white male and my experiences in that world means I don’t always have the most progressive and inclusive views at all times, but my humanist outlook has value and I actively try to be thoughtful and considerate of all people involved in a neutral and respectful way.  For example, my colleague had asked the group if we thought the women in the book hated men and, if so, was that ok.  The other two women in the group stated their points that the women in the book hated men and that it wasn’t ok.  I disagreed and firmly believed the women didn’t hate men and, if they did, that’s ok.  I was asked to explain my answer and I stated that was ok for groups of people with shared physical traits or ideologies to congregate on their own terms.  The girls and women in this book wanted to hang out with other girls and women.  That meant that had to exclude boys to do that.  And I fully support that.  They should have the freedom and ability to do that without question or interference.  This led to a discussion about discrimination and I held onto that belief altruistically.  If a nasty racist group wanted to meet and exclude whoever they wanted to exclude that, that’s tolerable.  It’s not ok in the sense that it is fine or acceptable to let that happen, but it has to be tolerated.  Plus, there are creative ways you can banish those groups to the corner without affecting their rights such as removing their racist posts on social media.  As long as the government doesn’t interfere with their free speech, they can be culturally excluded.  As long as no group isn’t being violent or inciting violence, it’s their right to meet, demonstrate, and be as exclusive or inclusive as they want.  I don’t think the women in the book club necessarily agreed with that point, but I communicated it rationally.  It may not be the most “woke” thing to believe, but I try to learn, be more thoughtful and considerate, and not be a complete shitbag.

The most interesting discussion revolved around third-wave feminism’s relationship to the second-wave and what will the fourth-wave look like.  We discussed why well-established feminist organizations didn’t step in to help support the Riot Grrrl movement.  There may be a lot of answers to that question ranging from those organizations didn’t know to that they didn’t care.  I personally believe it was the latter.  We discussed how the values of third-wave feminists weren’t respected by second-wave feminists who had more limited views on the definitions of femininity and what it means to be a woman. That generational divide applied to both age and ideals and is a logical answer to the question of why Riot Grrrl wasn’t supported by the likes of Gloria Steinem or Andrea Dworkin.

Third-wave feminism is, currently, the last wave that is agreed upon en masse.  The fourth-wave, in terms of what it means as well as the people and ideas that embody it, have yet to be agreed upon.  There are a lot of ideas floating around that fourth-wave feminism means including social media’s impact on feminism, transgender support, reproductive justice, and increased presence of women in senior leadership roles.  All of those are great things.  It is just that there is not solid outline as of yet.

I had raised the question to the group as to what they think fourth-wave feminism will look like and their goals from that movement.  My colleague, a woman of Indian ethnicity, stated she wants the fourth-wave of feminism to be led by woman of color.  We talked about how feminist movements had been led by educated western white women and there had always been issues with inclusivity when it came to woman of color (the Riot Grrrl movement experienced the same criticism in the book).  While a lot of progressive liberals are focused on ivory tower feminist issues such as why Mayim Bialik thinks women shouldn’t be referred to as girls, women of color abroad face issues and unspeakable horrors that simply don’t enter into the lives of white women in this country.

The rapper M.I.A. was brought up as someone who has been valuable at raising awareness over issues facing women of color.  Born Mathangi Arulpragasam, M.I.A. has been an activist focusing on issues facing Sri Lankan Tamils, Palestinians and African Americans.  She cites her voicelessness as a child as being the motivation for her role as a refugee advocate.  While M.I.A.’s activism has drawn a considerable blend of criticism and praise, she has undoubtedly been influential in elevating the role of women of color in not only music but also their place in the world.

I wasn’t really aware of M.I.A. when she released Arular in 2005.  Like most people, my introduction to her music was the 2007 album Kala because “Paper Planes” was a huge hit.  It was all over the radio and featured in commercials and movies.  It was a popular and inescapable song.  And rightfully so.  It is a great song.

I’ve paid attention to M.I.A.’s career since then.  In 2013, she released Matangi.  The fourth single released from that record was “Y.A.L.A.” and instantly became my favorite M.I.A. song.  With its heavy beat and hypnotic rhyming, it is a catchy song that is also poignant and clever.  “Y.A.L.A” stands for “You Always Live Again” and is a direct reference to Drake’s song and the popularization of his term “Y.O.L.O.” (“You Only Live Once”).  M.I.A. uses Hindu themes to lampoon a ridiculous pop culture statement that invites recklessness and thoughtlessness.  She poses the question of why, if we only live once, then why do we keep doing the same shit.  Culturally aware, M.I.A.’s critique of such selfish disregard is enlightening and indicative of her work blending social justice and music.

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“rebel girl” – bikini kill (1993)

History is a subject I always enjoy.  There are a lot of a great stories there, but also opportunities to reflect on how things have changed.  Whether this change is about you or society at large, the fact we can trace the evolution of how things progress, and document that, really fascinates me.

History, though, can be subjective based on who exactly is writing it.  History is written by the winners.  I’m thankful for all the ways we can capture history due to technological advancements.  Photographs, video, the Internet.  These are all great tools in capturing our world and documenting our presence and contribution for future generations.

So, it Is crazy to me with such great tools to record our lives, there are people who still challenge the truth while it is staring directly at them in face.  There is even a new buzzword to describe one’s blatant refusal to acknowledge reality: alternative facts.  Referring to something as “alternative facts” is an intellectually inept way to dismiss a truth if it doesn’t fit within a specific narrative you are writing.  Manipulating audiences with the introduction of alternative facts becomes a way to write history.  In our current political climate, it appears as though the current presidential administration isn’t interested in doing what is best for everyone in the country.  It is about winning.  And in order to win, you have to brand and market your ideas in a way that gets more people on your side.  Because, in the end, it isn’t about what actually happened.  It is about who finished first and on top and that’s when “truth” becomes reality.

We are always going through history and we are always experiencing history changing.  By and large, we don’t recognize we went through something very significant until years later because, sometimes, the historical impact of something takes years, or even generations, to make sense and provide context.  However, there are singular moments that define us and the world.  Moments where we know instantly that we will never be the same again.  And it is up to us to decide how those moments define us for better or worse.

I didn’t watch Trump’s inauguration speech or dinner.  I ignored all footage, reports, and social media posts that directly involved him.  However, I watched the footage of the protest in D.C.  Thousands of people marched and protested Trump’s presidency.  However, what took the spotlight off the large crowds were the few extremists who vandalized and behaved violently.  All of the news reports focused on the window smashing and the fires being lit.  Between the demagogue swearing in and the violent civil unrest in the streets, it was looking like a dark day.

The footage had me worried because I was scheduled to march the next day in Chicago as part of a nationwide Women’s March.  The Chicago Tribune anticipated that 50,000 people who show up in Grant Park to march a few blocks to Daley Plaza.  While I was impressed with that number, it seemed lame to have them march such a short distance.  However, it would be manageable and that would be a good thing considering the unease I felt after watching the violence in D.C.

Throughout the morning, in Grant Park, there were speakers and performers scheduled prior to the march.  I was with my friend Carolyn and we were running late, so we missed all that.  As we left the trains, I was reading a report on WGN that the total number of people was 150,000 and that march would be officially cancelled.  I was so stunned to hear that the number of people attending was three times more than estimate from the day prior.  We left the station and were immediately met with swarms of men and women waving signs and sporting fashionably cute hats with kitty ears; their pussyhats.

The march has just begun when we arrived.  Immediately, I was overwhelmed with a joyous spirit.  The energy and electricity in the air was nearly tangible.  We headed west down Van Buren chanting and looking at all the creative, colorful, and powerful signs.  Signs that could be funny, signs that were poignant, and signs sharing personal stories.  So many beautiful signs.

Carolyn and I ate cookies with frosting decorated like a shit in Trump’s image and cookies with Obama’s famous logo.  We turned north on Wabash and marched under the L train.  The large crowd, like a snake, meandered through the Loop on Jackson, La Salle, Madison, and finally to the famous Michigan Avenue where we marched under the shadow of the infamous Trump Tower along the Chicago river.  However, we didn’t stop there.  The crowd had already veered off the approved path for an already officially canceled march, so it wouldn’t hurt to take it as far as we could go.  So, we marched up State before Carolyn and I broke away at State & Chicago for lunch.

The day couldn’t have been better.  The sun was shining and was unusually warm for a January day.  The protests were larger than expected.  Most importantly, it was a peaceful protest.  Conflicting reports were running until the final estimate recorded that over 250,000 people protested in Chicago.  And not only that, there was a not a single arrest.  So many women marched in this country that it became the biggest protest in U.S. history.  And not only that, but women marched and protested on every single continent. Everything about that event was the exact opposite over the depressing train wreck in D.C. the day before where people rioted, were arrested, and the rain put a damper on spirits as our country watched a vile man take the oath of office for the presidency.

The day before, I had finished a book entitled Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus.  It was the next book to read for a music book club and I didn’t know much about riot grrrl.  However, how fitting it would be to finish it the day before the Women’s March.

The title of this book comes from a mantra championed by the Riot Grrrl movement, an underground feminist punk group, that challenges the patriarchy within music and culture while creating a safe space for women and girls to participate while also giving them a venue to express themselves. The Riot Grrrl movement originated in 1991 in Olympia, Washington before generating a second hub in Washington, D.C. In these groups, young girls and women formed bands, created zines, and held group discussions that encouraged sisterhood and positive reinforcement of self. Out of the movement, bands like Bikini Kill and Bratmobile were formed as a musically engaging way to address issues that plagued women including rape, domestic abuse, and sexuality. These punk rock shows and zines provided an outlet and a voice for women and all the inherent subcultures within to challenge not only the “boyocracy,” but the outdated ideals of 70s feminists in favor of a more radical and progressive style of feminism, third-wave feminism, a concept that was more focused on the individual and inclusivity.

Bikini Kill gets credit for inventing the riot grrrl movement, but this is something they refuse to accept.  Regardless, they made powerful music with a powerful message.  Released in 1993, “Rebel Girl” is Bikini Kill’s most memorable and serves as the unofficial anthem of the riot grrrl movement.  In this hardwired punk classic, Kathleen Hanna sings about a girl in the neighborhood who is so confident that she seems to own the entire area.  Hanna is enamored by this girl and desires to be her best friend.  In the spirit of riot grrrl, Hanna wants sisterhood and to crush all the critics of this queen of the neighborhood.  The song has rebellious spirit with a message of tolerance and elevating women.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that song during the march.  And given that I just finished that book the day prior, it added more significance to the day’s events.   I went there to support all of the important women in my life and to express solidarity with women all over the world.  It is a moment I’ll always cherish and I feel honored to have march alongside such brave and brilliant women.  In an age where our written history is at stake, I am happy with the choice I made of where to stand.  Revolution girl style now!