Statement modified May 12, 2006 originally from a Roundtable moderated by Bill Shoemaker www.pointofdeparture.org
In my opinion, the predominant suppression of discourse around music and the arts is not so much its social context, which aspects of “critical theory” and “ethnomusicology” and other “ologies” engage, but the actual political role music and music creators can play in challenging capitalist-imperialist hegemony, and even dare to overthrow and replace. That is the question: HOW DOES MUSIC FREE US?
But before I proceed, let me not make the assumption that all of you reading may share this interest or commitment. So for the sake of civil intellectual discourse, let me argue why we should even be concerned about this matter as intrinsic to perhaps what I may assume to be our common interests and values such as artistic integrity, aesthetic development, creativity, originality, inclusivity and “racial/gender/economic” equity in terms of compensation, career recognition and rewards, valorization of transgressive and “avant garde” or innovative formic considerations, etc. Even if one subscribes and espouses “art for art’s sake” and “standards of creative excellence/artistic quality as the sole and determinant criteria”, I will argue that destroying capitalist-imperialism is the way to go for anyone who feels, believes and sees that commodification and desertification of creative resources and capabilities is the ever present danger.
Caroline Kraebel's description of the onslaught of cultural and ecological degradation, and the exponential subordination to imperialist aggression (whether it be military conquest or socio-economic, the double effect of McPentagon and McWorld), are not understated.
First let me define what I mean by “imperialism” or the capitalist-imperialist system. No one but the most dishonest or ideologically-blinded would disagree that the world-system of capitalism, which is hegemonic today, is at a global stage, running amok over the entire planet. Imperialism is this global, monopolistic, stage of capitalist economic and social development, which seeks to impose its relations of production everywhere and hence is totalizing and globalizing. Imperialism is not merely a policy of nastiness and bullying practiced by mighty nation-states over weaker ones. Even these policies and acts of bullying and domination are driven by competition to hoard and control resources, to exploit cheaper labor and to expand markets to stimulate and saturate with consumer goods and parasitic services. So my use of “imperialism” refers to this totalizing, world dominating process and effect of capitalism, thru both its state institutions (governments, military, world bank, trade cartels) and its monopolistic multi- and trans-national corporations.
Let me address the symptoms and characteristics of imperialism mostly upon music.
Imperialism and ecological and cultural desertification. The capitalist system of mass commodity production and exchange inevitably replaces and defeats individual production (from the family farm to the individual or cooperative craftsmen guilds to mom and pop businesses) by simply producing things more cheaply and faster. The inevitable effects and consequences of mass production are mass consumption/consumerism. Circulation of commodities (including music via recordings or packaged tours, digital downloading thru the purchase of more toys like Ipods, etc.) is accelerated and intensified. What might appear to be more “choices” in actuality is the homogenization of products as volume and per unit sales trumps quality and individuality. Even so-called “niche” markets cannot survive if sales don’t produce sufficient profits to stave off competitors who are always looking to capture and control greater market share. The syndrome becomes: so much information, so little knowledge; so many channels, so few choices; so many toys, so little satisfaction and pleasure.
I just have to look at my LP collection to remind me that the music I most enjoy will most likely never be digitized and make it into CD format (which if this music were converted to CDs, would tempt me to buy for a lot more cost than I spent for my vinyl simply because I want the portability and the ease of great sound coming out of miniscule device via headphones, all of which I can conveniently put into my jacket pocket). Or if this music was digitized and put “free” on the web, I would be tempted to buy a new toy like an I-Pod. But should any component of the capitalist music industry figure a way to profiteer off my particularly esoteric musical tastes, they’ll figure out the temptation needed to get me to buy the CD versions, and since my own personal economics don’t have the growth trend of a university professor union contracted pay scale raises, I’d additionally be tempted to sell my vinyl somehow to afford my new conversion and to make space since I can’t afford to buy a bigger place to live and keep accumulating things.
The advancing desert is a powerful metaphor. Ecologically, soil erosion, increased land salinity, deforestation, mono-crop botany and agriculture, have led to the devastation of desertification. So too has cultural desertification been a product of the homogeneity of commercial music (Pop music with a “capital/capitalist P” and not the popular music, small “p”, of indigenous creativity).
Another by-product or “side” effect of cultural malnourishment, increasing mono-diets, over-consumption of processed, chemically treated/created culture and food is the over-reliance upon our musical intake from manufactured commodities such as loudspeakers, machines, computers, and thus greater passivity is generated where by people no longer look to themselves to make music, but simply purchase it via a concert ticket to a new electronic home entertainment toy. With this greater removal of participation and creation are two effects: the musical and artistic deskilling of the populace and its increasing specialization and monopolization by “experts” or marketers (often, with the complicity of academia and corporations, they are one and the same). I will discuss academia’s complicity far more below, so this is an early warning to you professors and self-important intellectuals that I’m comin’ after y-alls!
So we get a listening population, similar to the general population, that is obese, out-of-shape, unhealthy, addicted to all the wrong and bad stuff. What is organic becomes a “specialty” niche market perhaps packaged as “world music”, etc. They are hooked onto the saccharine-saturated, they believe the hype, and worse, consume it as if it is suppose to be good for them. And the cycle of consumption/accumulation spirals out of control: more diet fad books to the latest pills to the latest exercise toys or gurus. In terms of music, consumers consume the latest glossy music junk journalism, buy the latest world music guide books or illustrated coffee table books about “jazz” or watch the Probably Bullshit and boring Stuff (PBS) documentaries called “Jazz” made by a well-financed darling who not only is a novice on the subject matter, but relies upon the most reactionary and backward “advisors” in the field.
Technology has not only mediated and shaped how and what kinds of music we hear, but it has, under the control of capitalist interests, in a growing number of cases, become the actual music. Sound and recording engineers are as or perhaps, in the most commercially aggressive cases, more important to the finished product of music we buy and listen to than the actual musicians themselves! And as we all know, the most influential and determinant link in the process from recording studio to the marketplace has nothing to do with music production, but its marketing from visual packaging design, to advertising, to the hype of so-called music journalism to simply conforming to current lifestyle and fashion trends.
I go to my food market, and “regular” foods are everywhere, while “organic” foods are in special sections. A “regular” apple I buy has been subjected to petro-chemical fertilizers and insecticides, artificial environmental treatment, probably genetically-modified to enhance its size and color attraction. The “organic” apple has to be labeled with its certification and of course, costs a whole lot more (because individual human labor power was much more direct rather than the lesser-costing automation).
CULTURAL IMPERIALISM VS. CULTURAL RESPECT. Many who know me and my views are well aware of my pummeling of practices and rationalizations that are cultural imperialist. I won’t rehash such critiques here which include such commonplace cultural imperialist thievery and fakery of claiming credit where credit isn’t due, or posturing as knowledgeable about “other” music when you really aren’t, or promoting “exoticism” and pumping up your “newness” or unfair compensation between the first world “name” artist and the third world talent. Rather, I will focus on the principles and practices that would enhance CULTURAL RESPECT/SHARING.
Working humbly for years with master artists from traditions you seek to learn, including giving such artists in your work full credit and just compensation; not simply “sampling” without regard to contextual source, respect for the sacred, acknowledging and crediting and compensating sources (including shared copyrights with entire villages or peoples, which Dr. Royal Hartigan has propounded and practiced); learning to liberate oneself from the bourgeois individualist artist-as-heroic-genius of simply using “sounds” for self-expression (self-gain) but as ways of supporting anti-racist, anti-imperialist, pro-fair exchange, pro-indigenous organizing causes and activity; living in the same conditions with, and learning from, the people and “giving back” in all the ways we can (from our sincere friendship, admiration and love to supporting and participating in the fight against all forms of imperialism and imperialist-supported assaults).
In a nutshell, the three “C’s” of cultural respect and sharing: Credit, Compensation, Committed anti-imperialist solidarity. (As a hardcore revolutionary socialist, in the final analysis, I believe the greatest contribution will be the last aspect, especially what we in the first world can do to end the inequality and oppression within the citadel of our own comforts, compliance, conformism and corruption by rejecting first world chauvinism and privileges.)
What is to be done, How can music free us?
By recognizing and combating the ideological “givens” and values and assumptions of bourgeois culture/society, and by constructing its opposite so we can live and make music in total opposition, as revolutionaries, seeking to rid the world of all of its bullshit effects and toxins, and becoming organically whole and self-producing creative, imaginative and socially conscious human beings building socialist sustainability.
Reject the cerebral over the physical. Some black artists, in reaction to being stereotyped or “essentialized” as “physical” and “emotive”, have tried to argue for and justify access, legitimacy, credibility and recognition for the more “serious” valorization of European high-art musical values. In academia, this is so readily apparent whereby music theory and analysis is valorized over performance or “playing.” Music, as emphasized in bourgeois academia, is more about knowing than doing (with the false assumption that one could ever really know something without being able to be engaged in doing). Performer-players are relegated to junior and adjunct positions. The stars are those who can throw together the most fashionable big-worded jargon masquerading as theory. When one scrutinizes what they can actually do, either as musical leaders or as performers, they come up shallow and superficial.
Part of liberating the planet must be de-Europeanizing the world (Kalamu ya Salaam). With the ascendancy of the western European (and later American) bourgeoisie, music became increasing removed from its communal soil and sold on to the market place as the product of the individual-heroic-genius. Removed from its profound, inextricable, sustenance to communal life, with an elite detachment produced for (and soon, by) the leisure classes (bourgeois and middle-class), concomitant values of notation-primacy, equal temperament, technical perfection, fixed “classics”, “canon” construction, rigid hierarchal pedagogy and ensemble social relations, etc. are promoted and as capitalism takes root everywhere, become the “standards” for “art.” I am not advocating the total discarding of the bourgeois European art music traditions (tho personally, I have little interest or use for it), but rather, its canonization as anything superior or more profoundly musical. Indeed, I find the traditions of Asia and Africa to be far more evocative, especially when we get into shamanism and the spiritualizing totality of music. In those traditions, music IS a force to effect (wo)man and Nature.
I personally would rather converse in “non”-European tongues, eat the food of local families in Third World villages, wear Afro-Asian clothing, and build movements of musical and political solidarity with the national liberation struggles of Africa, Asia, the Americas, and Oceania. But that’s me.
Reject Technological Supremacy, Embrace Ludditism, Learn from and have Low Impact Upon Nature. I’d rather have sex with many womyn openly and freely without the repression of bourgeois monogamy, marriage and the nuclear family and failing to attain these “family values”, stay in front of tv or on the internet trying to find a date or masturbate to commercial porn. I’d rather be playing with musicians who I admire, without having a gig bring us together, enjoying the natural acoustics of my local church (I’m not religious, just rent the space to practice) to simply enjoy their musicality and personality. Acoustic live performance over electricity-dependent situations. Live performance is a social act in which all people participate and interact and have mutual influence. It wasn’t the recordings of Sun Ra, Rahsaan Roland Kirk or many other artists that had the most important and profound impact upon me (indeed, some artists’ recorded works are substantially inferior to the experience of hearing and being there live with them, which ironically, “live” recordings fail to capture/convey as well). It was hearing them live, being in the aura and experience. I have visited the home of Amiri Baraka many times and have been most profoundly struck, that given his output of writings and involvement with “the music,” how few actual recordings he had, how little “stuff”, except paintings and artwork, were in his home. Especially the low number of techno-types of toys. I realized that his great knowledge of “the music” and of black culture in general came from participation and involvement, not in accumulation of things and objects (again, with the exception of visual art). I also noted how freely he just gave away books he had (not just of the books he’s had published). It was like barter. He gives me a book, I give him a CD, he perhaps gives that CD away and someone gives himself something else to check out. This recycling is another form of circulation but outside of mainstream commodity exchange for cash.
Computer-generated music, like computer-generated art/animation, can infinitely explore all the permutations and probabilities of responses to any and all data. They are the ultimate in technical perfection. But I would submit that it is in the imperfections where the imagination inhabits, and which is truly the stuff of great, soulful human expression.
Reject City Domination over Countryside. Mao and the revolution in China have especially had to struggle with this contradiction/dichotomy. My life is made up of two extremes, of which Suburbia is completely removed and non-existent. Suburbia is the analogy for homogeneity and social engineering. I spend part of my time living and working in one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities: Brooklyn (secondarily New York City which most presume is Manhattan!). I spend the rest of my time in Third World rainforests completely nude, usually living with an extended family from whom I get meals and a place to sleep. My music is most characteristically “urban” but my soul is “tropical rain forest.” While I think my music can communicate to humans, I am still learning to figure out how I can communicate with bears, coyotes, whales, dolphins, jaguars, mountain lions, cougars, bob cats, wild horses, etc. Raul Salinas, the great native American-Xicano poet-revolutionary socialist, said in a poem, that native Americans liked Rahsaan Roland Kirk a lot (“Song for Roland Kirk”) because:
“…you were close to something, man… native brothers and sisters from the north dug you, too you talk to trees, bees and birds and things like that… the grey world judged you nuts, so what else is new?…”
I haven’t learned how to make my own musical instruments like the elder musician I met on a beach in southern Turkey who made a flute from the marsh reeds by the beach, and played one of the most spectacular solos I’ve ever heard; and who, when finished, simply gave me the flute he made and had played (without me asking for it).
We need to restore what some call community, others call collectivity, but what I would assert is communism: the social nature of production must finally and ultimately mean the social control and ownership and benefit of production over individual profiteering (transmogrified today into imperialism, the monopolization of power by a very few ruling over the very very many). Many would say: Fred, let’s focus on what’s possible. Or, Fred, your ideological and political predilection seems to preclude propensities for the here-and-now possible reforms. But I will only quote Sun Ra in response: Everything possible has been tried and nothing has changed. What we need is the Impossible. The music we make must embrace the Impossible in the arduous journey to make the music a true force for social revolution. Everything musically possible has been done. The world hasn’t changed. What we need is some Impossible music along with some Impossible thinking and activity.