Bruce said it
Even though it’s a Jeep ad
Whose map of America leaves out the UP
We need the middle
On Saturday, June 6, San Pedro, California, had its first large gathering in response to the protests that have swept the world since the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. There had been smaller protests, in front of the San Pedro police station and city hall, but this morning event was the first to draw several hundred people, in a march from the police station to city hall, followed by speeches. It looked like a demonstration; there were “I can’t breathe” posters and chants of “No justice, no peace.” Some social media commentators called it a Black Lives Matter protest. But that activist organization was not involved in Saturday’s event. Instead, it was organized by three unlikely bedfellows: The NAACP, the Los Angeles Police Department Harbor Division, and the office of LA City Council member Joe Buscaino.
Organizers hailed this as a breakthrough alliance. But skeptics — and I am one — feared that this was not a breakthrough coalition, but a cooptation. First, the march was channeled (literally, they walked down Channel Street) on to empty roads where there was no chance to engage onlookers or passersby or generally make an impact, which is pretty much the point of a march. One of the participants was controversial police chief Michael Moore, who led his officers into violent confrontations with protesters in LA earlier in the week and at one point blamed those protesters for Floyd’s death. Buscaino, a former cop, is against the cuts to the police department already agreed to by Mayor Eric Garcetti, let alone the foremost demand of BLM: Defund police. Indeed, no concrete changes were demanded or offered at the rally, except for a call to vote for change in November (agreed). Instead of singing “Lean On Me,” “Alright,” “We Shall Overcome,” or even, I don’t know, “This Land is Our Land,” a woman wailed “The Star-Spangled Banner” — as if we were at a political convention, or a football game.
The “Unity Rally” suffered from a serious existential crisis. Many of the participants were visibly and vocally disappointed by the speeches and the presence of Moore and other cops; indeed, speeches by anyone with a badge were largely drowned out by protesters. “This is not a photo op,” they chanted at Buscaino. “This is a protest!” they shouted at the politicians. “This is not a pep rally!” they shouted — incredulously — when the NAACP’s Cheyenne Bryant ended the event by thanking folks for coming to, yes, “a pep rally.” Most people around me turned away in disgust at that point. One young man jumped up and started speaking to the crowd about his dismay with the speakers’ failure to address the real issues of systemic racism. Many stopped to listen to a voice that finally spoke to the real message of this movement.
None of this dissent made the coverage of the “Unity Rally” in The Daily Breeze and the Los Angeles Times. Reading their accounts, I had to wonder if I was at a different event. As a journalist and a scholar of journalism, I can’t say I was shocked: Mainstream news outlets typically report the perspective of the powerful, not those speaking out against power structures. Sometimes the erasure is structural; reporters hang out by the stage, instead of in the crowd, and miss the true story. But at Saturday’s event, you had to be deaf and blind to miss the shouts of the protest against the rally.
All this said, there was an incredibly moving moment that did bind everyone there — a moment that lasted eight minutes and 46 seconds, the amount of time Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck. Bryant asked everyone to take a knee, the gesture made famous by football player Colin Kaepernick (one of the pioneers of the protest against police violence for years now, whose work is finally being vindicated; the NFL finally had to admit it was wrong to censure him and others). Cops, protesters, politicians, parents, kids, blacks, whites, Native Americans, Pacific Islanders, Latinx — everyone that I could see kneeled. And for almost nine minutes we were quiet. Mostly. After several minutes that seemed like an eternity, in an act of spontaneous improvisational street theater, voices rang out:
“I can’t breathe!”
“Get off my neck!”
The final words of George Floyd exploded from the crowd. Staring at the ground, I began to sob. I could hear others crying around me. It was a powerful gesture that has been deployed at protests around the world. Eight minutes and 46 seconds is a long time. Long enough to take a man’s life, just because you can.
As the crowd rose, they started another chant, again, one not led from the podium: “A silent cop is a bad cop.”
I am not against dialogue. I understand that you sometimes have to sit down with your enemies if not to negotiate change, to make them change. For 8’46”, everyone in that plaza — including many police officers — had to to contemplate one man’s dying moments at the hands of another.
Gestures can be powerful. But they can also be easily imitated. What America needs is not gestures, or even words, but action. Action like that the Minneapolis City Council said they would take Sunday night: To not merely cut the police budget, or defund the force, but to disband them.
This is of course exactly what the LAPD fears, and why at this point, they need to listen to the people, more than the people need to listen to them.
Join UCLA Professor Shana Redmond and I in conversation June 9 about the soundtracks of social change, from “We Shall Overcome” to “Fight the Power” to “U.N.I.T.Y.” to “Alright.” A Turn It Up! Tuesday Instagram Live eventa!
Festivals have a bad reputation for not showing a lot of r-e-s-p-e-c-t to women. (See what I did there?) Numerous articles over the last several years have pointed out how few female artists are booked at some of the major music gatherings, and how low they are often kicked down the billing. Drunken bacchanals can be mine fields for audience goers as well, who at best have to push aside guys who insist on dancing close, and at worst, are gang raped; see, Woodstock 1999.
Hopefully the triumph of Beychella proves once and for all that women can very successfully headline music festivals that aren’t named after biblical heroines or take place in the woods of Michigyn. It’s an idea that the Music Tastes Good festival has been testing for a few years, and last weekend, the two-day gathering in Long Beach demonstrated loudly and joyously, as Ann Magnuson would say, the power of pussy.
Both days of the sun-blessed soiree featured a variety of female-led acts. Saturday’s lineup included the psych-punk ¾-female Silver Lake band Feels, one of my favorite local groups, although I missed their MTG set. I did get there just in time to catch Quintron and Miss Pussycat, the adorably kitschy New Orleans duo who blend punk, polka and puppets. They played the classic alcoholic anthem “In Heaven There Is No Beer” as the lazy-susan stage rotated them out and away from the crowd, the perfect fadeout.
I was there for the ladies so when the four lads from shame (they lowercase their name; bell hooks appropriation?) came on, I went to check out the food-tasting tent. As its name indicates, MTG pairs food from all over the left coast with sounds from, well, all over. So you can enjoy some super-foodie treats instead of the turkey legs or butter-soaked corn cobs of your usual outdoor concert. The tastiest tasting I tried was the pork-belly rice bowl by Wesley Young of Pidgin restaurant in Vancouver.
I finished noshing just in time for Cherry Glazerr, another fave LA band, led by the young Clementine Creevy. Creevy has a great, brittle throb of a voice and suicide-blonde looks, but what impressed me most was the way she pulled off sneering guitar licks while singing completely contrapuntal melodies – all with the support of just two bandmates. Lead singers who are also the lead, and only, guitarist are few and far between; Creevy’s the shit.
She rotated off, and on came a four-piece guitar band with three dudes and one player whose sex I wasn’t sure of, until Adrianne Lenker opened her mouth and this alto vibrato flew out. I didn’t know anything about Big Thief, but I was converted. Their take on Flying Burrito Bros. country-rock is so studious it’s almost pretentious, but Lenker’s words are poetic and felt.
Princess Nokia’s political rap-rock made for a bit of a jarring transition – it’s great that the rotating stage makes the segue between acts timeless and seamless, but sometimes you need a few minutes to, er, digest. Still, she and her DJ won me over immediately with her rap about brujas, Arawaks, and Black-a-Ricans. She pulled a classic riot grrrl move, asking for not just girls to the front, but people of color, queers, nonbinaries, etc. Then she sang about her little titties and big stomach, a tomboy retort to the typical festie cry of “show us your titties!”(I also saw a girl with a bag that said, “Show us your kitties!”)
Then, it was Santigold. Oh my goddess. Her show was so smart, so creative, so thoughtfully put together and so unlike any other concert I have seen (and you know, I’ve seen thousands, and I’ve seen Santi before), that it is hard to describe. She wore a scarlet cape with plastic water bottles, dollar bills, and green pompoms sewn on it, and was flanked by two dancers: black women clad in white tennis outfits whose bodies moved impeccably throughout the show and who never betrayed any emotion. They pulled off a James Brown routine: pretend fainting, then getting revived. Rock rubs against reggae, funk, new wave and hip-hop in Santibrown’s songs, shooting off sparks, getting hot. As DJ Lynnee Denise writes in Women Who Rock: Bessie to Beyoncé. Girl Groups to Riot Grrrl, “Santigold is one of those artists who is vulnerable to the belief that hers is not black music, but from my gatekeeping position, my work here is to place her where she belongs, squarely between the tradition and the future of black music.”
Some bands named “Broken Social Scene” and “New Order” played afterwards. I saw the latter about 35 years ago, when they actually sort of mattered (and I personally played “Temptation” live every day), and they were the worst live band ever – they were so bad, they made fans in Boston riot. Why would I go see them now, with Santigold’s “Disparate Youth” ringing in my ears?
Hollie Cook started my Sunday off on a beatific reggae groove. She’s punk-rock legacy, daughter of a Sex Pistol, member of the Slits version 2, friend/collaborator of my friend/collaborator Vivien Goldman. In her vivid pant suit basking in the Southland sun, she was a bit of a flower child, bless her.
Next, I made my way over to the Gold Stage for Lizzo, a dance diva with a big, beautiful voice and body, both of which she flaunts unashamedly. She and her dancers, the Big Grrrls, and DJ dressed in black pleather dominatrix corsets and sang about body positivity. Lizzo was the poster child for Music Tastes good: After asking the audience if they had eaten as well as she had, she stated, “I’m sexy when I’m bloaty.” She urged people to dance to burn off all the calories they had just consumed. She had a practical message for this week’s stupidity/evil in Washington: “I deleted every fuck boy in my social media.”
It was time for the main event. Janelle Monae has for years been weaving a sci-fi song cycle as intricate as the Earthsea trilogy or the Matrix movies, as funky as a Prince groove, and as crazy sexy cool as a TLC hit. She stepped outside the narrative on Dirty Computer to get personal. Rewind: She stepped outside the narrative on Dirty Computer to get political. Because these days, as ever, the personal is political.
“Woman must write her self,” Helene Cixous wrote more than 40 years ago in Laugh of the Medusa. I think of Dirty Computer, particularly the track “Pynk,” with its accompanying bootylicious video, as embodying Cixous’s call for ecriture feminine, women’s writing. It’s a glorious celebration of pussy power, with a spelling that harks directly to 1970s womyn’s culture. Monae kicked off the album’s release by coming out as “pansexual,” which may seem a bit ambiguous, but “Pynk” leaves little to the imagination. With her Fem the Future organization and her speeches at the Women’s March and the Grammys, Monae has been at the forefront of the current liberation movement, black and pynk and proud. Plus, she kicks out the jams. Dirty Computer is my album of the year.
As the crowd made its way back to the Franklin stage, Lizzo’s admonishments to be their own inspirations echoing in their heads, I had that special feeling that I was part of a movement, that in the female, nonbinary, multihued bodies around me, I had found my tribe. We waited with bated breath for our screen siren to appear in flesh before us. And then, there she was, dressed like an Afrofuturistic queen with an elaborate stage setup.
Monae certainly tapped into the mood of this moment; on the double-entendre track “Screwed,” she put special emphasis on the lyric “wanna get screwed at a festival.” And yet, the show was tightly scripted, the moves highly choreographed, her body, from head to toe, firmly encased in costumes. On album and in interviews, she may be revealing her self, but on stage, she doesn’t seem to have fully made the transition from android to human. Tellingly, the song that seemed most real was the sweet confessional “I Like That,” from Computer, in which she celebrates her idiosyncrasy, claiming not badassness but being “the minor note you hear in major songs.” Monae is my major note, but that’s a lot to ask anyone to live up to, android or not.
Some Blake bloke followed Monae, but again, he was an afterthought that I didn’t think. I wish Music Tastes Good had put a woman in one of the weekend’s two top slots, but Janelle was billed as a headliner. Overall, the festival almost alternated male and female-led acts of an impressive range, from punk to funk to reggae to rap to rock. Plus, they worked with the #HereForTheMusic anti-harassment campaign of Calling All Crows, who trained staff and security in how to make Marina Green Park a safe space for everyone. An anti-assault statement was printed prominently on the back cover of the program. Last time I felt like I had a tribe like this at shows, in the mid-‘90s, we had to carve out our own territory in mosh pits. Here’s to a future of getting screwed at festivals, in a good way.
Yesterday I had one of the great honors of my professional life: I got to introduce the launch of a Journalism major at Loyola Marymount University. It was a momentous day to be talking about the newsgathering profession, as I acknowledged in my opening remarks before Los Angeles Times columnist Steven Lopez took the stage and inspired the approximately 200 audience members — most of them students — with his stories and advice. Afterward, he and HLN anchor/CNN writer Carol Costello discussed the state of the news industry, sometimes heatedly. A day later, when CNN’s reporting of a confrontation between two women and Senator Jeff Flake apparently marked another turn in this dramatic story, my comments about the convergence of journalism and feminism seem more appropriate than ever.
This is an extraordinary day. I have to acknowledge the pedagogical irony that we journalism professors constantly tell our students they must stay on top of the news, and then we have asked you to be here in this room instead of glued to your screens or radios. We didn’t know, obviously, when we picked this day what would happen. I promise we will only keep you for an hour, and then we can all get back to events in Washington. I also want us all to keep in mind how emotionally difficult today’s hearings can be for many of us. We talk a lot about trigger warnings in academia. Today was explosive for many of us, not because we are snowflakes, but because we are human beings. So please treat each other with especial kindness and empathy this difficult week.
I was going to start my introduction with the question, Why journalism now? But today’s hearing answers that question for me. Two of the most important forces in my life — journalism and feminism — have come together to challenge the citadels of power. From Gretchen Carlson to The New York Times, Times Up to the Washington Post, and MeToo to The New Yorker, citizens and journalists have exposed abuses of power. The fruits of that labor — and it is labor, hard, harrowing, exhausting work — are playing out in the senate as we speak. And the attacks on the media — attacks that have become deadly in our own country — are also being renewed right now, in DC. Let me assure you: LMU Journalism is not training the enemies of the people. We are teaching the reporters, editors, videographers, photographers, reviewers, anchors, columnists and podcasters of tomorrow how to inform the people.
LMU decided to launch a journalism major because young people asked for it. Students enrolled here asked for it and students applying here asked for it. Indeed, though we officially became a major only this fall, we have almost 50 students enrolled already. They asked not because they are looking for a sure way to make a living. I’m here to tell you right now that you don’t get rich being a reporter. They asked because they care about the world that they are inheriting, and they know that journalism is a way to make that world a better place. They understand that a free and open press is fundamental to the functioning of our democratic republic, and they want to make sure that press presents and represents them. We are a Journalism program, housed in a department with a tradition of rhetorical analysis, in a college dedicated to understanding humanity, at a university committed to personal and cultural transformation: Telling people’s stories is our mission.
This is not a concert review.
Pussy Riot did not play a show at the Los Angeles club Echo Saturday night.
Pussy Riot are artivists who don’t believe in the commercial practice of concerts. As they say in a press release, “Events that we organize are political rallies, not concerts.”
Pussy Riot held a rally at the Echo Saturday. It cost $25 in advance to take part in this rally, $28 day of show rally. They also rallied Sunday night, and will do it one more time tonight.
I saw a really good rally at the Echo Saturday night.
Pussy Riot has changed a great deal since they first grabbed the world’s attention after they were arrested, prosecuted, and jailed for performing “A Punk Prayer” at Russia’s sacred Orthodox cathedral. The Pussy Riot that led Saturday’s rally was not an all-woman anarchist punk collective, but a coed techno/rap duo. The only recognizable member of Pussy Riot on stage at the Echo was Nadya Tolokonnikova, and by recognizable, I mean that even though her face was covered by a balaclava, everyone knew it was Nadya – she has the most famous musical lips since Mick Jagger. There was also a DJ/programmer, a man who goes by Chaika – every rally needs a DJ – and a woman who occasionally bounced around and shouted (every rally needs a gogo dancer/hype person too). It was unclear if we would have recognized these two even if their faces hadn’t been covered by cloth. “Anyone can be Pussy Riot,” Tolokonnikova said Saturday, a claim the group has always made. Still, it was a bit weird to see a guy on the mike. Aesthetically, Chaika seems like a good collaborator for Tolokonnikova. But is this what people want when they see Pussy Riot?
Tolokonnikova has become a skilled MC. Her word flows sound particularly mesmerizing with a Russian trill; she also raps in English, especially when it’s subject appropriate, as in the Trump takedown “Make America Great Again.” Chaika’s beats propelled the tracks into climactic explosions; the rally became a rave. Their songs remain provocations, with infectious agit-prop hooks: Nadya led the audience in chanting, “Pussy is the new dick!”
Pussy Riot are deft visual as well as musical propagandists. They performed rallied Saturday in front of stunning videos, including visuals by jailed Russian artist Oleg Navalny for “Election,” their timely commentary upon the recent “win” by Vladimir Putin.
Make no mistake, protest was the running theme of Saturday’s event, along with coalition building. Pussy Riot have invited community members to join them on all the stops of their current tour. Saturday, Fat Tony took the stage before Pussy Riot with a set that fused bass-heavy hip-hop with not one but two Ramones songs. In the music journalism biz, we used to call this “an opening act” – I’m not sure what the rally equivalent is. Pussy Riot seem to be particularly reaching out to black American artivists, a tactic that reminds me of the Clash.
I don’t really care if you call what I saw Saturday a rally or a concert, but then again, I got in free as press. It was cool to see Nadya hanging out in the audience of the tiny Echo and not acting like the kind of rock star she deserves to be; after all, how many other musicians have spent time in the gulag for their art? I’ve always said that the quality of Pussy Riot’s music tends to get eclipsed by the impact of their message, and I feel like that more than ever now. I’d pay money to see Tolokonnikova in concert, and she wouldn’t even have to call herself Pussy Riot.
Last night, at a point when we needed it most, America was blessed with one of the most detailed, compassionate, forward-looking, fierce, and presidential speeches I have ever seen a candidate give. And she wrapped it all up with a quote from Hamilton! Hillary Rodham Clinton provided an exuberant end to an intense and important convention. Afterwards, we went outside and the Northern sky was lit by aurora borealis. Stars streaked across the heavens for seconds at a time, leaving behind iridiscent exclamation marks. It was as if Mother Earth were celebrating this historic moment — or as if my own mother were letting us know she is still here. Hope lives.