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A brief primer on Black Power Christmas music

album cover
 
Turkey Day has passed us by, and it is officially the Christmas season. And, as the Pamplona of Black Friday reminded us, this means an onslaught of fevered consumerism, fetishizaton of commodities, conspicuous consumption, and all that other icky stuff that turns our red little stomachs stomachs. Exacerbating that nausea is the hallmark corniness of the holidays. “Peace on earth and goodwill towards men” can feel so cliched and forced when contrasted with the materialism of the spectacle. It’s easy to get a little contemptuous at Christmas.

It’s all reminiscent of George Orwell’s essay, “Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun.” A self-identified socialist, Orwell begins the piece with an anecdote on Lenin, who was, as the story goes, reading Dickens’ A Christmas Carol on his death bed. It’s said that communist revolutionary denounced the feel-good classic as full of “bourgeois sentimentality.” A fun guy, that one.

Orwell goes on to bemoan the kind of cynicism exhibited by Lenin and his ilk, noting that we dour anti-capitalists can’t seem to enjoy anything nostalgic or sentimental. I think anyone with much experience in radical circles has recognized the tendency. So in the interest of subverting our fuddy-duddy dispositions, allow me to show you one of my favorite Christmas music sub-genres: The Black Power Christmas Song.

Now, I’m not just talking about a Christmas song performed by a black artist, or even a Christmas song performed in a black genre. I am talking about a Christmas song that portrays Christmas itself as explicitly black. Let’s start with “The Be-Bop Santa Claus,” by Babs Gonzalez.

 
This 1957 update of T’was the Night Before Christmas starts out with the line, “T’was the black before Christmas.” Now Babs was a bebop pioneer and poet, and used to go by the name “Ricardo Gonzalez” in an attempt to get into hotels that discriminated against black people; that coy little line is an incredibly personal one. What follows is a perfect depiction of the Reaganite’s boogeyman, complete with suede shoes, Cadillacs, and Applejack; it’s fantastically subversive, unapologetic, and totally self-aware.
 
Of course, I can’t resist including the 1958 white hipster rip-off, “Beatnik’s Wish,” by Patsy Raye & the Beatniks.
 

 
It’s quite the (ahem) “homage.” Paging Norman Mailer…

If “The Be-Bop Santa Claus” alludes to urban poverty, James Brown’s “Santa Claus, Go Straight to the Ghetto” leaves nothing to the imagination.

 

 
“Say It Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud” was released as a two-part single in August of 1968. This song was released a few months later on James’ full-length, A Soulful Christmas, which was the first LP to feature “Say it Loud.” Meaning James Brown, already a floating signifier for the Black Power Movement, released “Say it Loud—I’m Black and I’m Proud,” on a fucking Christmas album. Take that, Lenin! It acknowledges black poverty as a pressing matter of social justice in a seemingly incongruously celebratory song. Second, the song applies radical Black Power politics to something as traditional as Christmas. (If I could add a third, I’d also say that this is just a sick jam, but I digress.)

This one, however, is my absolute favorite.

 
Performed by Teddy Vann and his daughter, Akim, “Santa Claus is a Black Man” is arguably the most adorable product of Black Power. I mean look at that album cover! Look at her wee little Black Power fist! Listen to her sweet, spastic, bubbly little voice!

Not only can I not overemphasize the significance of radical children’s art being sung by an actual child (we so rarely give children the reigns, so to speak), “Santa Claus is a Black Man” is a brilliantly executed piece of kid-sized politics. You have a black child satirizing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” which was originally sung by Jimmy Boyd, arguably the whitest damn child in the world. And the hook is, “and he’s handsome, like my Daddy, too,” an joyous assertion of “Black is Beautiful.”

Interestingly, towards the end, Akim says, “I want to wish everybody Happy Kwanzaa.” When Kwanzaa was first introduced in 1966, founder and activist Maulana Karenga promoted the holiday as a way to “give Blacks an alternative to the existing holiday, and give Blacks an opportunity to celebrate themselves and history, rather than simply imitate the practice of the dominant society.” Much to Karenga’s surprise, African Americans were rarely willing to give up the holiday of the oppressor, and eventually Karenga softened his position to allow Kwanzaa to be celebrated alongside Christmas, though not before “Santa Claus is a Black Man” was released in 1973. In the grand scheme of things, people don’t really want to be sectarian when it comes to Santa Claus.

Of course, none of this music succeeds in making Christmas cool. Even though these are great, subversive little songs, they’re also rife with the exact sort of schlocky sentimentality we’ve come to expect from Christmas music. And why shouldn’t they be? What’s so bad about sentimental and schlocky, anyway? Does Wal-Mart win if we enjoy a little syrupy holiday cheer? Will a few tender moments soften our anti-capitalist resolve? These songs are all navigating a very old tradition in order to reflect the radical ideas, the radical ideas we hope will become our new traditions. They use Christmas to represent the underrepresented and condemn racism and poverty, and they do it all with a little bit of mawkish sincerity and delight.

This Christmas, let’s resist our inner-Lenins, and let’s wallow in a little sentimentality. Hey, it was good enough for James Brown.

Posted by Amber Frost | Discussion
Exclusive Premiere: Ships release new song ‘Places’

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After a couple of years of “hanging out, sizing up, and rigorous sound/soul searching” musicians and artists Simon Cullen and Sorca McGrath have brought their talents together to form Ships, a collaborative synth project, which is winning considerable attention at home, in Ireland, and across the water.

Cullen is a former member of Les Bien, the core of Lasertom and The Blast Crew, and a pivotal member of the arts/music/film/video collective Synth Eastwood. McGrath is a singer/songwriter formerly with Palomine. Having established themselves as independent artists and performers, McGrath and Cullen brought their shared interest in Fleetwood Mac, Prince and Moloko (together with “honorary” member Cian Murphy of I Am The Cosmos), to create their upbeat, emotive and fruitful collaboration Ships. They have already released 2 singles, “You’re Gonna Feel It” (which was part of a release with I Am The Cosmos) and “Two Hearts”.

Now, here is Dangerous Minds’ exclusive premiere of Ships’ latest track “Places”.
 

 
Bonus tracks from Ships, after the jump…
 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

I Am The Cosmos: Exclusive premiere of track ‘Lost Rhythm’


 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Beautiful Fevered Dreams: The Art of Sig Waller

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When the artist Sig Waller was a child, she experienced intense fever hallucinations. It possibly explains something about her paintings, which are beautiful, brightly colored, fluid, dreamlike, visions of reality. I find her work addictive, and am drawn back, time and again to certain paintings - paintings which seem as if she has made real some fragment of my dreams.

Waller’s first major exhibition was in 1996, and since then she has exhibited her paintings across the world. Her work is fabulous, intense, politicized yet often darkly amusing. There is a great intelligence at work here, which can be seen in such varied series as: Dreamlands (1999-2001) a series of channel-hopping images taken form television; Hotel Romantica (2002), sensuous paintings based on a pack of nude playing cards, which was stowed away on the Apollo 12 spacecraft during its November 1969 voyage to the moon; All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (2011) a series of paintings examining different forms of protest; which ties in with Burning Desire (2102) a series of paintings based on mobile ‘phone photographs of the Tottenham riots in 2011.

Sig (originally “S.I.G.” or “Spectrum is Green” from Captain Scarlett and the Mysterions) Waller divides her time between Brighton and Berlin, and is about to start an artist’s residency in Italy. I contacted Sig to find out more about her life, her inspiration and her childhood.

Sig Waller: ‘I grew up mainly on the Gower Peninsula near Swansea, Wales. My parents were foreign intellectuals - my father an American historian who dressed like a tramp and my mother an obsessively Francophile, German psychologist. Our house had no TV or telephone; pop music was banned, as were cinema visits. The only contact my sister and I had with popular culture was via comic books and story cassettes sent from Germany. We spent a lot of time at our grandparent’s house in the Saarland and I grew up bi-lingual with my mother’s French-influenced regional dialect as my first language.

‘My mother was horrified by life in South Wales and tried to create her own “Little Germany” within the walls of our house. This resulted in me reading Gothic tales in old German script dressed in Bavarian costume while my classmates wore t-shirts and watched Top of the Pops.

‘When I was 8 there was a period when I experienced some quite intense fever hallucinations. At the same time, I had Hauff’s dark tales swirling around in my head and this came to form the root of my fascination with the macabre and the grotesque. Stories such as “The Tale of the Hacked-off Hand” or “The Tale of the Ghost Ship” are still with me today.

‘One of my most formative childhood experiences was that of alienation. If a kid is different, the other kids will point and I got used to being pointed at. Later things changed and my parents got hip, dragging us to experimental theater performances and art movies. I remember the day I told them I wanted a record and their dumbfounded reaction. Prior to this, I’d been secretly listening to music on a small transistor radio in bed. Surprisingly, my mother entered into the spirit of things and started buying Brian Eno records and taking us to the ICA. At around this time I began to dye my hair and decided that it was okay to be different.

‘When I was little I wanted to be a clown or an artist. I loved Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy and was fascinated by the idea of the circus but as I was also quiet and shy I must have decided that art was the better option. I spent hours studying reproductions of paintings and imagining my future life as an artist. I didn’t think I was very good at drawing but held onto my fantasy and at around age 13 something strange happened and suddenly I could draw. I then spent most of my adolescence listening to obscure music, drawing and nurturing my teenage melancholia.

‘My first truly artistic (and coincidentally also comic) act took place in the baby cot, where I – left unattended – picked up one of my baby-poos and using it as a colouring stick, expressively daubed at the bars of my confinement. This event has been recounted to me on many occasions, usually in the presence of a new boyfriend, so it must be true.

Paul Gallagher: Tell me about Art College?

Sig Waller: ‘I was barely 18 when I moved to London to study Art and Art History at Goldsmiths. Back then the art college was at the Millard building in Camberwell and that place had an incredible atmosphere. I remember one afternoon, a guy came into the bar with a pistol and yelled, ‘Everybody get their hands up,’ and everyone just ignored him, it was that kind of place. People were generally too busy polishing their egos to notice the guy with the gun.

‘I started going to warehouse and squat parties and halfway through my first year at college I began living in squats. I continued with this life for the next 7 years and this gave rise to my interest in protest and rebellion.

‘While at college I began to paint with oils and use elements of my clothing in my work. I would walk around with slogans pinned to my back and these would eventually make their way into my paintings. One of my jackets became part of a painting too – I wore some very strange outfits; I guess it was a kind of performance I was engaged in, though it was more organic than contrived.

‘After college, I stopped painting and started making hats and other fluffy rubbish and selling these through markets and designer shops. I also did a Photo / Video foundation course, worked on music videos and animation and wrote a few film scripts.’

Paul Gallagher: From college, you moved to berlin, why and what happened?

Sig Waller: ‘I’d been fascinated by Berlin for years, its new wave and industrial music scene excited me and so many things seemed to be happening there. I first went to Berlin in 1989, just after The Wall came down and was there over the New Year, which was an incredibly intense experience. In 1995 my friend Volker Sieben invited me to live in his run down studio complex in Brunnenstrasse in Berlin-Mitte, so I packed my bags and drove there with a car full of fake fur, which I was going to turn into stuff to sell.

‘In 1996, I moved into a place on Reinhardstrasse, which was a stone’s throw away from the Reichstag. A new project space called C4 opened round the corner and in early 1998 I curated Blut & Blumen (Blood and Flowers) there. This marked a turning point for me as I began to revisit my childhood dream of being an artist. Some months later, I had a solo show at the Tacheles and painted my first oil paintings in 10 years.

‘In late 1998 I moved back to Brunnenstrasse, which is where I painted my extensive Dreamlands TV-zapping series which I showed as part of the Z2000 Festival in Berlin and also in New York in 2001. The flat on Brunnenstrasse was documented in a book called Berlin Interiors: East meets West.’

Paul Gallagher: What inspires you?

Sig Waller: ‘Dark things inspire me. And things that make me laugh. I find the combination of dark and funny particularly inspirational but I am also interested in art history and cultural theory; junk and found materials; chance encounters; future studies and science fiction; fairy tales, horror and the paranormal; expressionist cinema, cult movies and television; and obviously books and the internet are an endless source of inspiration, as are conversations with artists and friends…

‘Some of my work may appear to be quite militant, this is because I find a lot of political issues quite infuriating, so in a way my work is also a form of personal anger management and these more radical pieces are an expression of some of that rage.

‘Right now I’m feeling inspired by needle-crafting grandmothers everywhere, by all the people who spend hours making stuff in their living rooms, by my son’s infallible sense of humor, by the encouragement of others and by the many great and wonderful artists I’ve stumbled across over the years whose time has yet to come.

‘I’m also still a fan of Kippenberger, his work resonates to this day and a lot of the art I’ve seen in the past 20 years is simply imitation Kippenberger.

Out of the exhibitions I’ve visited recently, I found the Deller show at the Hayward the most engaging. Art can be political, but on some level it should also be enjoyable.
 
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More from Sig Waller’s life and art, after the jump…
 
Previously on Dangerous Minds

S.I.G. Waller: ‘Our capacity for cruelty and suffering is timeless, as is our ability to look away’


 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Savilegate: Some troubling questions for the new CEO of ‘The New York Times’

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I wonder if Mark Thompson had anything to declare when he went through customs en route for his new job at the New York Times? Probably not.

And now he is ensconced as CEO at the NYT, I wonder if Thompson has anything to declare over the Jimmy Savile scandal that has engulfed the BBC?

Probably not.

Even so, I can’t help thinking that this is not the end of the story, for I find it hard to believe that Thompson knew nothing about those stories regarding Jimmy Savile, or was not at least aware of them. It now appears that I am not the only one who thinks this. Allegedly former BBC journalist, Keith Graves, finds it hard to believe, as he, or someone commenting under his name, posted on the Daily Mail:
 
keithgraves_comment_daily_mail
 

Mark Thompson says that during his time at the BBC he “never heard any allegations” about Savile. During his years in the television newsroom, culminating in a period editing the flagship evening new, rumours about Savile being ‘into little girls’ were rife as were often crude comments about hims and his behaviour. It is inconceivable that those rumours, which were, I recall, often discussed in the BBC club bar by news staff, did not reach his ears.

- Keith Graves, Valencia, Spain, 28/10/2012 13:27

Even Mike Hollingsworth, the man who first employed Thompson as his assistant at the BBC, said in the Daily Telegraph, Thompson would have had to been “tone deaf” not to have heard rumors about Jimmy Savile.

“He must be mad denying that he’d heard anything about Saville. We had all heard the rumours. You would have to have been tone deaf not to have heard them…

“I know that Mark has a strong Catholic faith, but it wasn’t as if this was something that people would whisper about when he came into a room – he is a man of the world. You just have to look at the programming he put out when he took over at Channel 4 to see that he wasn’t in the least bit squeamish when it came to all kinds of discussions about sex.”

This incredulity from former colleagues has only increased the growing disquiet over the “baggage” Thompson is perceived to be bringing to his new job at the New York Times, as one of the paper’s editors, Margaret Sullivan wondered in a blog: 

“How likely is it that [Thompson] knew nothing?....His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The [New York] Times and its journalism – profoundly. It’s worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.”

The questions hinge on what Thompson knew about the Jimmy Savile scandal, when he was Director General at the BBC. It’s an important issue, one that saw his replacement, George Entwisle (or “Incurious George”) resign his position over not knowing about a Newsnight item that led to a gross libel against an innocent man. If Entwistle was considered guilty for not knowing about the serious allegations broadcast by his flagship news program, then where does that leave Thompson, who claims he knew little or virtually nothing about a planned Newsnight investigation into abuse allegations involving Jimmy Savile?

What little Thompson did know he dismissed in a letter to Conservative MP, Rob Wilson:

“What did happen is that, at a drinks reception late last year, a journalist mentioned to me the existence of the investigation and said words to the effect of “you must be worried about the Newsnight investigation?” This was the first I had heard of the investigation…Although I recall hearing at the time of his death that BBC Television might do something (a tribute) about Jimmy Savile in due course, again I had not been briefed about the programmes themselves. I assume they were commissioned and broadcast by BBC Vision, the BBC’s television arm, in the usual way.”

This is obvious buck passing. Moreover, as it was Thompson who tightened up BBC procedure after the scandalous Brandgate affair - where 2 BBC presenters (Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross) were involved in a prank call that was deemed to be offensive and “a catastrophic breakdown of editorial and compliance control by the BBC” - it seems incredible that Thompson did not take any real interest into a planned BBC investigation into serious allegations of pedophilia involving a major BBC star. 
 
More questions for ‘NYT’ CEO Mark Thompson, after the jump…
 

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Discussion
Facebook’s sneaky Trojan horse: You won’t ‘LIKE’ this!


 
This is a guest post by New Delhi-based social media consultant, Kartik Dayanand.

The writing is clearly on the wall: The Internet is up in arms against Facebook.

The biggest grouse being the way Facebook is scuttling the reach of status updates in the news feed. Enough has been written already about the topic and the voice of dissent is only growing by the day. The recent furor has served to confirm what everyone already suspected about the way Facebook’s notorious EdgeRank algorithm was hiding status updates.

In a smart move to counter this backlash, Facebook has launched a special news feed dedicated only to Pages. This should act as a soothing balm to the bruised egos and angry voices, but the reality is something else. This new Pages only feed is but a glorified version of the main news feed with the censoring of content still more or less intact! To call it a minor improvement would be overstating the case, but it does show, to a certain extent, that Facebook is listening. Maybe.

While reach of status updates is a major concern there are other problems that ail Facebook, some of which I discussed in detail in an older blog post of mine Meet the Enemy of the Internet! This was a post that I published six months ago and luckily for me it came alive once again because of it being featured here on Dangerous Minds.

Needless to say, traffic from Dangerous Minds to my site was fantastic and this in turn gave me a lot of additional data to substantiate what I had discussed in my earlier blog post.

The main issue of contention, apart from the apparent scuttling of status updates, is the battle between the SHARE and the LIKE buttons on our websites. These buttons are the primary marketing tools on every site and are supposed to help our readers share content to Facebook and in return we expect referral traffic coming from Facebook. That is the only reason why these buttons exist in the first place.

As I pointed out in my original blog post, the SHARE button, including the organic shares (links inside status updates) drove 95% of the referral traffic to my site from Facebook as opposed to the LIKE button which drove the remaining paltry 5% of the traffic. In a curious twist, Facebook decided to get rid of the SHARE button. Why did Facebook do that? The detailed reasons I gave in my previous exhaustive blog post about this, but to cut things short: Facebook hates it when you bring content from the outside, it tries its best to hide stuff that originates from outside the gated community of Facebook. (Photos, however, they, uh, “like” because you don’t have to leave Facebook to view them. This is why Facebook purchased Instagram).

I have gone through the traffic statistics of my blog for the last week since the moment that Dangerous Minds shared my post and below are the findings, taken from Facebook Insights, for my blog during that period. Mind you, during this period my site did not have the SHARE button on it, just the LIKE button. See for yourself what happened.

Organic Shares:
There were 159 people who shared my post “organically” on Facebook. That is, they posted the links to my blog in the status update box manually without the aid of any SHARE button residing on my site. These updates resulted in 32,496 impressions on Facebook and 452 people clicked those links on Facebook and landed back on my site. Somehow 32,496 impressions sounds very small considering that some pages that shared this post had followers in the thousands including Dangerous Minds which counts over 61,000 people who have “liked” its Facebook Page.
 

 
Like Button:
The LIKE button was displayed 20,020 times on my blog and 178 people clicked the LIKE button in that same time period. These LIKE’s are supposed to display in the news feed of the person clicking the LIKE button so that their friends can view the stories similar to the way SHARE buttons did earlier.

To my surprise I found out that the clicks on the LIKE button drove ZERO impressions on Facebook which in turn means no one saw those LIKE’s on Facebook and hence there was ZERO referral traffic back to my site. I wonder what would have happened if I had the SHARE button there in place of LIKE?
 

 
Nearly without exception—almost every one of us—the website/blog owners, have gotton rid of the SHARE button at some point of time in favor of the poorly functioning LIKE button, which can be seen to be suicidal for traffic. Those who still stuck with the old code of the SHARE button were brutally ambushed when Facebook discontinued technical support for it in its old form sometime earlier this year.

Do you smell a rat here?

I smell a Trojan horse.

PS: Think twice before you click LIKE below, you are better off SHARING this post rather than clicking LIKE, or maybe it’s best if you do both.

This has been a guest post by New Delhi-based social media consultant, Kartik Dayanand

You can catch him here:

Twitter: @KartikDayanand          
Facebook: Mind u Read
Blog: www.minduread.com

Posted by Richard Metzger | Discussion
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