June 23, 2010


Incisively left-wing cultural productions are a red flag for mass media--this is no secret or mystery. It is precisely this sort of political stigmata that made Aaron McGruder's sublime, early-2000's comic strip The Boondocks such a rarity and a gem. Focusing on the trials and tribulations of Huey Freeman--a ten-year old, self-proclaimed revolutionary Black Chicagoan transplanted into the upper-middle-class white neighborhood of Woodcrest--and his family, the comic more or less served as McGruder's proxy to wax poetics on the contemporary politics of race, class, family, war, nationhood, the media and pop culture from an unabashedly progressive lens. And it was nationally syndicated.

However, this legacy has made its subsequent adaptation as an Adult Swim television show frustrating to watch at times. For practical reasons (animated, half-hour shows require far more production time than do ink-on-paper daily comics) The Boondocks has shifted from a commentary on recent events and news to a multimedia exposition on Black cultural politics. This is by no means an intrinsic hindrance to the show--which has deftly taken aim at class privilege, the commercialism of hip-hop, reactionary patriotism, the "War on Crime," police brutality, the death penalty, internalized racism and more in its 35 or so episodes--but has altered the tone and scope of the program. Moving the limelight to the extended cast has provided a platform to further investigate many of these social issues, but one must wonder if it comes at the expense of diluting the presence of Huey--The Boondocks' McGruder incarnate and in many ways the moral foundation of the entire franchise.

This is no more evident than in Sunday's episode "Pause," primarily a satirization of Tyler Perry, his series of ever-popular plays/movies and his ubiquitous character Madea; The Boondocks treatment offers Winston Jerome as the Perry archetype and Ma Dukes as the theatrical matriarch. Yet the episode's title refers to the vernacular practice in hip-hop culture of disassociating oneself from language that could be interpreted as homoerotic, by quickly blurting the phrase (or alternatively, "no homo") after the purported double entendre. Jay Smooth does a far better job of breaking down the inherent heterosexism and homophobia in this language, so I won't even try:

To recap the story briefly, Granddad auditions for and wins the leading role in Jerome's new play as a romantic interest for Ma Dukes. In the process, he learns that Jerome's theater troupe is in effect a cult, an eccentric cocktail of evangelical Christianity and the veil for Jerome's closeted sexuality--Granddad's role is revealed to be a vessel for him to join Jerome's stable of sexual partners. Huey and Riley intervene, Granddad storms off of the set (with a final "no homo" to Jerome), and the Freemans drive home as Riley watches a video of Ma Dukes attempting to kiss Granddad on stage, literally and vocally "pausing" the video every few seconds.

Winston Jerome as Ma Dukes

What makes "Pause" troubling is that The Boondocks has previously tackled the issue of masculinity and homophobia to great effect. Its other closeted gay character, the rapper Gangstalicious (voiced brilliantly by Mos Def), received a two-episode story arc that touched upon the rootedness of heterosexism in hip-hop culture without falling victim to the woes of intolerance. As the show reveals the inveterate currents of homosociality in hip-hop culture (the camaraderie of brotherhood, the exaltation of prison life, the attention to fashion, etc.) and suggests that hip-hop's homophobia needs a popular, openly gay rapper to break the stranglehold on its ostracization of LGBT people. Gangstalicious, threatened with the exposure of his sexual orientation and confronted by the consternation of his fanbase, chooses to remain in the closet--and the cycle continues.


I enjoyed "The Story of Gangstalicious" not because it circumvents the homophobic attitudes within hip-hop culture (and society at large), but rather makes said attitudes manifest and uses the show as a platform to demonstrate their absurdity--Riley, Gangstalicious's fan and friend, is reduced to tears because he firmly believes that listening to a gay rapper makes him gay too; a fellow rap group hides from Gangstalicious while clad in his new line of gender-non-conforming clothing ("I'm keeping the pearls," remarks one of them, voiced by Snoop Dogg). Huey, the sole voice of reason, looks on in disdain at the hysteria caused by Gangstalicious's sexuality, and it is implied that we should follow suit.

In contrast, "Pause" finds Huey partaking in the rescue of Granddad from Winston Jerome's theater cult, with no clear-cut message that the cloud of "pauses" and "no homos" are the extension of an antiquated social norm. Jerome's sexuality, rather, is lumped in with his otherwise eccentric behavior--say, requiring that his actors forsake their families, or his feud with Ice Cube for the throne of Black entertainment--and his theatrical cross-dressing becomes part of those aberrations.

For the most part McGruder et al's critique of Tyler Perry--formulaic plot lines, adherence to Black stereotypes and colorism, for instance--does remain on point, but the episode robs Perry of one of his core strengths: that a devoutly Christian, straight man can portray a woman on stage and screen and elicit a hefty viewership. I don't think Perry's work is liberatory in the grand scheme of things, but it's a troubling of oppressive gender norms that The Boondocks unfortunately renders as something to be gawked at.

This is not a defense of Perry, nor a condemnation of The Boondocks, which has shown that it has the brilliant potential to poke fun of homophobia and homophobes. It's also a show that involves quite a bit of nuanced understanding, embodying the comic strip's explicit left-of-center stance in more subtle ways. But if McGruder and his fellow producers choose to depict said attitudes towards LGBTQ people without showing the destructive capacity of those behaviors--whether vocally or subtextually--then it's a strike against one of the most consistently progressive voices in the entertainment industry in the past decade.

And that, not Ma Dukes, deserves a moment of pause.

February 16, 2010

Charlie Chin x Chris Iijima: "Back To Back" (1982)


SIDE A (Charlie Chin)
A Song for the Manong
Only Chinaman in Great Falls, Montana Blues
Mott Street on Sunday
Down in the Street
Digging for Gold

SIDE B (Chris Iijima)
Dust Don't Fly
Say What You Will
El Salvador
Thinking Ahead
Asian Song
LA Song

In 1973, three young Asian American musicians and activists--Chris Iijima, William "Charlie" Chin, and Joanne Nobuko Miyamoto--banded together to record A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America, a 12-track LP that has earned the title of the first "Asian American" album. I won't go into details, because I tend to talk about it endlessly, but do listen to the album if you get the chance: it's a masterful interpolation of Asian American activism four decades ago. Yep, APA music was "born" in egalitarian community organizing. Gotta love it.

Nine years later, Chin and Iijima rejoined forces to put their second album on wax. Fitting for its time, Back to Back resonates with a Movement in decrescendo--more about survival than struggle, less about the world in revolt than the people on the day-to-day grind. Questions of capitalism and communism aside, the twelve songs tackle issues indicative of the changing landscape of social change: alienation, gentrification, environmental justice. As Vincent Chin--who was murdered that same year--demonstrated, the very stigma of Asian Americans as unwanted, inimical "foreigners" was a massive problem unto itself in 1982.

Yet the fire is still there. This is (arguably) most evidenced in Chris Iijima's "Asian Song," a working-class ode that weaves between past and present to assert that Asian Americans have, quite literally, built the country from the ground up. The chorus (because we're here / and going strong / and we're getting tired of proving we belong) struck me as somewhat reserved at first, but after repeated listens it seems perfect in its brevity. The thirtysomething Iijima wasn't the professional revolutionary he was a decade prior--in fact, he was a schoolteacher on the Upper East Side by then--but the impatience and disgust he subtly intones says it all. We'll keep on fighting, and you can't stop us.

Chris Iijima, "Asian Song"

I admittedly appreciate the Iijima side more than Chin's half, but together they provide a twenty-eight-year old survey of Asian America spanning multiple peoples, communities, locations, sentiments, frustrations and battles. It's by no means complete, but it's a history lesson you can nod your head to. Enjoy!

Thanks to Michael for owning the album, Derek for ripping it, and Charlie & Chris (RIP) for translating your creative impulses into action. Sorry for the poor audio quality--vinyl is vinyl.

January 7, 2010

New Year's Irresolutions

I am, and likely will always be, a horrible blogger. Part of this comes with the tendency to be longwinded, but moreso because I can't seem to stick to an endeavor for more than a week or so before it falls into the imminent heap of dreams deferred. Lots of exploding raisins in the sun, if you will.

And, as much as I doubt my own abilities to commit to a New Year's resolution and stick to it, expanding this blog may be my best option, precisely because it'll develop a skill that I'm definitely going to need in the years to come: the ability to consistently develop my thoughts in writing.

I'm not going to set any sorts of quantifiable goals for myself (doomed to unfulfillment), and half of the posts will inevitably end up talking about hip-hop, but I'll do my best to keep the content fresh and aflame. Like fiery bags of poo on the doorstep. (I've already failed at eloquence. Ah well.)

So, let the great experiment begin. For the 4th or 5th time.

August 21, 2009

George Jackson

September 23, 1941 - August 21, 1971
"We can only be repressed if we stop thinking and stop fighting."

Stanley "Tookie" Williams, former Crips leader turned prison anti-gang activist, was strapped to a chair and killed by the state of California in late 2005. His appeal for clemency had been denied by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who cited Tookie's one-time dedication to fellow prisoner of conscience George Jackson as "a significant indicator that Williams is not reformed and that he still sees violence and lawlessness as a legitimate means to address societal problems." Jeff Chang's assertion that "Tookie [died] for George Jackson's sins" (see the link above) is fitting--even though Williams spent his time in prison working tirelessly to end gang violence in black working-class communities, his veneration of revolutionaries like Jackson was enough to bring the guillotine down upon him.

I read Jackson's 1971 manifesto Blood in My Eye a few months after Tookie's death, and I immediately saw why the state would want to cast Jackson as a bearer of "violence and lawlessness." The book is, in essence, the American transliteration of guerrilla warfare stratagems written by folks like Che Guevara and Mao Zedong--the reimagination of the metropole as the epicenter of the American revolution, a blueprint for the forceful uprising of an indignant underground army. Jackson was killed 38 years ago today (well, yesterday) as the result of an alleged prison riot--according to officials, he was hiding a pistol in his afro. To this day, however, details are hazy and many people speculate that his assassination was an act of silencing him--that is, the very enactment of state violence that Jackson himself sought to overturn.

I have my own disagreements with Blood in My Eye, similar to the ones rife in Jackson's Black Panther Party around the time of his death. Famously, in that same year Eldridge Cleaver split from the leadership to amass such an armed underground cabal, the Black Liberation Army, while co-founder Huey Newton continued to develop his communitarian visions of popular self-determination within black (and oppressed) communities. I am perhaps more attuned to Newton's ideas, but I cannot help but stand in awe of Jackson's force. Blood in My Eye infuses a haunting beauty into the specter of an America crumbling from the fury of the dispossessed, burgeoning with the details of how such an internal war might be won. Violent it is, but lawless? Jackson may have wanted to dance in the flames of the cityscape, but only since he had already bore witness to the "law" as it was--he was jailed indefinitely for stealing $70, and he died for trying to envision, and actualize, a new legal order that didn't serve primarily to contain the indigent.

Tookie and Jackson may seem divergent in the messages they spread while incarcerated; the former worked to deter young black men from joining gangs, while the latter sought to reallocate capital through armed resistance. But they share an intertwined destiny--the state killed them both, in the very same prison--and perhaps this illuminates their similarities. From behind bars, both men sought to transform the operative potential of black youth, redirecting them from gang warfare to a deeper project of social transformation--one that dared to question the very sanctity of the prison system and its enduring presence in poor communities of color. The two sought peace by different means, but they both died for the crime of thinking outside the box (or cell).

Blood in My Eye remains one of my favorite books to this day--not because I believe in his prescriptions, but rather because it's an inspiring and painful glimpse into the final words (it was completed days before his death) of a man with the boot to his neck, clawing viciously for air. Jackson has been long gone, but his writings have remained for the posterity of critical thinkers who have wept in gratitude for his temerity to speak the unspeakable. We may never know his suffering, but we owe it to him to preserve the part of him that remains.

The body evanescent, the spirit eternal. Rest In Power.

June 26, 2009

Peace, Mike.


I was born six months before Bad hit shelves. That is to say, my familiarity with Michael Jackson's salad days grew not during their moments of inception--I was far too young--but rather in glimpses of recollection: Halloween costumes, music videos on public access television, my dad trying to moonwalk in socks across the kitchen floor (emphasis on "trying"). I grew up in a time when his invincibility had long since begun to fracture under the scalding gaze of the limelight, but his adherents were just as prevalent as his detractors and satirists.

After all, Michael Jackson was not merely the cornerstone of modern pop music, but the very embodiment of American pop culture. The public saw him make the impossible leap from musical wunderkind to American sex symbol, propelled him to dizzying levels of superstardom, and then slowly began to chip away at the pedestal beneath him. The vitiligo. The plastic surgery. The perennial accusations of child molestation. The speculations of bankruptcy. I don't think the wealthy should be granted double standards, and pedophilia is no laughing matter, but Mike's life is a bitter example of how quickly the public eye can eviscerate its own heroes.

His death, naturally, has sparked the latest round of caprice. In the first postmortem moments it has finally become taboo to speak ill of his eccentricities, a collective exhortation to remember him for his superlative music and not his maladies. I welcome the celebration, a fitting if not melancholy conclusion to a man whose artistic contributions have a profound resonance to this very day. Undoubtedly his passing has helped many to remember how many people he's entranced over the years, but it cannot come at the expense of public amnesia. I do not mean to say that we should not recognize his artistic prowess first and foremost, but rather we should view his public decline in a far different perspective. To ignore the troubling parts of his life is to bypass our own complicity in the matter.

Perhaps I am being too harsh, for I am certain that many of his mourners never turned on him in the way that mainstream media has encouraged us to do. But I am also reminded of that memorable scene from Three Kings, when an Iraqi soldier suggests that Mike's facial transformations are symptomatic of a public that has grotesquely mistreated him. "He did it to himself!" is the American response, a frantic attempt to self-exonerate. Yet the "enemy's" words are ultimately far more pressing--"Michael Jackson is pop king of sick fucking country." We cannot claim public ownership of Mike's music without understanding that the other side of his life is equally ours as well. His eternal quest for childlike innocence and lavish consumerism were the symptoms of a disease that was not grown in his mind alone--they were the cancerous attachments to the same avenues of communication and distribution that brought his music to the masses. Again, Mike was pop culture, the posterchild of a public instinct that seeks solace in commodities, in the exorbitant sanctum of Neverland Ranch, and that drowns out the tumult in the prescription drugs that possibly took his life.

I truly hope Michael Jackson has found the peace for which he's been looking, the serenity that could neither be bought nor swallowed daily. He may not have left this earth with the dignity that the public sapped from him over the years, and it is not enough that we might retroactively restore it only in his eternal absence. Yet it is the least we can do--when the stinging shock of his loss comes to fade and the next media hype beckons for our ephemeral attention spans, to remember MJ not only as a musical giant but a public sacrifice, to confront the idea that we were as easily captivated by the witch hunts that tailed him as we are moved by his discography. Lest we think, when the shit hits the fan, that he brought it all upon himself.

April 1, 2008

"Gay or Asian?": Racism AND Heterosexism

"entering the dragon requires imperial tastes"!?

Throwback to 2004, when the less-than-enlightened folks at Details magazine put out the widely-vilified article, "Gay or Asian?". Ostensibly, there's some sort of behavioral, or stylistic, link between Asian and queer men to suggest an indistinguishable overlap. Not surprisingly, lots of people got pissed off and protested, and a full-page (yet half-assed) apology was released (I'll try to locate this apology).

What I find interesting, however, is the way in which opposition or protest against such an article can ultimately reinforce the very dichotomy posed within the title of the article. For instance, some articles, like Karen Sakai's, poignantly argue that claims to satire cannot deny that this article reinforces "outrageous" stereotypes created out of systems of power and dominance--yet highlight the central problem of the article as one of racism. Other interpretations could consider this an affront to Asian American "masculinity"; given that Asian males are typically rendered as effeminate or emasculated, such an article merely reinforces such ideas by associating all Asian males with homosexuality, and is thus problematic.

My concern with this, of course, is how it is absolutely crucial to consider how race and sexuality are both social constructions typically and historically constituted as categorized and distinct demarcations--that is, one is either Asian or not, heterosexual or homosexual--and not as fluid models of multiple inclusions. Through its ridiculous labelings ("shrimp balls or shaved balls," "choke up on your chopsticks," etc.) the article dually renders Asian American and queer men as exotic, the "Other," and distinct from the normative masculinity of straight white men. Thus, the article is just as much an offense against LGBTQs as to Asian Americans; both constitute the abnormal and the object of study/spectacle/what-have-you in the article. Moreover, as the Gay Asian & Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY) argued, the very title of "Gay or Asian" creates a dichotomy between the two, that one is either/or... but what about the proud and vibrant communities of queer AND Asian men? Said (then-)co-chair of GAPIMNY John Won, "This message perpetuates the invisibility of (gay and lesbian Asian Americans) who live at the intersection of race, sexuality, class and nationality."

Thus, it's not sufficient to denounce "Gay or Asian?" for merely presenting a feminizing view of Asian American men, because there are distinct concerns in how attempts to reclaim one's "masculinity" can be reduced to bigoted assertions of what constitutes a "man." It would be inexcusable to perform "masculinity" through violence against women or queer people--fighting racism cannot come at the expense of ignoring sexism and homophobia. Rightfully, the driving force against Details came from both Asian American and queer advocacy groups, a show of unity and an understanding of the intersections of communities, rather than the forces that would dichotomize the two. It's a promising sign.

March 25, 2008

Revolutionary... Sex?

I got you open like... a true democracy

The first time I heard about Blue Scholars' song "Southbound" was in a teaser for the Joe Metro EP, where Sabzi hinted that the song was "for the ladies." Nevertheless, I was left slack-jawed by the song the first time I heard it:

Blue Scholars, "Southbound"

For a group typically known for proletarian affinities and quote-unquote political cuts, I had expected something more along the lines of the long-time favorite "Life & Debt," which is sort of a serenade combining working-class woes, decolonization, and a down sister. Thus, "Southbound" left me stunned with its, er, forthcoming-ness:

You're the first one to find me in the cold like that
No disguise when the prize makes your eyes roll back
Do it like Moms and Pops when they made us
Simulating scenes by adult entertainers
Conversations 'til 1, have relations 'til 4
In the morn', you've been warned, I'm a warrior, y'all

At first, it seems out of place, yeah? Definitely more graphic than anything else I've heard from Geo. My sistah/ProudPinayPoet Jenny Lares had the same reaction. But we both came to the conclusion that, ultimately, why would it be odd for them to make the song? If anything, to suggest that it's a "deviation" of some sort is merely to fetishize so-called "progressive" cultural productions as inherently rooted in some articulation of political struggle, that it's always necessary to have a fist in the air and a critique of capitalism on hand. But... nah! Progressive or not, we're all human, with human desires, pleasures, and urges--and if we're not fighting for a reclamation of our own humanity, then we're not really fighting at all.

It's telling that revolutionary groups like the Black Panther Party tried to engender progressive gender politics by establishing childcare programs in which both men and women would be required to partake, trying to shatter boundaries of what was socially indoctrinated as "women's work" and instead advance collective familial structures. While some groups unfortunately tried to mask misogyny and chauvinism under calls for "revolutionized" sexual relations--such as abandoning monogamy, which typically served as a way for male activists to make unwelcome advances on their female cohorts--for the most part progressive women and their male allies have done much to advance the dignity and justness of gender equality.

Yet, as Geo opines, this doesn't mean we need to forget about getting down n' dirty--as the chorus exhorts, sometimes it's necessary to take a step back, to live for the moment, to "let it go":

No matter where you are, a struggle's nearby
And there ain't enough time for lovers to say hi
Some nights require a spark
A fire to remind us what we really look like in the dark
So let it go, let it go...

When I look at it now, "Southbound" is one of the most honest songs I've heard from Blue Scholars--from Day One their m.o. has been to advance and project views of ordinary, working people, and certainly a song about nights of passion (and how valued they can be in times of strife) fits perfectly within that mode. Like Geo said in "Cornerstone," my people celebrate life despite poverty. Love the song, and keep it up (no pun intended).