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Book Review: Tina Fey, Bossypants (Little, Brown and Company, 2011)

By Lydia Holt
If I weren’t the sleep-deprived mother of a sick child, I probably would have stayed up late into the night to finish 
Bossypants by Tina Fey all in one go. As it was, I had to swallow my guffaws so as not to wake the aforementioned sick child.

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I Am Not Descended From Egyptian Pharaohs, and That's OK

By Lydia Holt

I love what the girls of Watoto From The Nile did in their video/letter to Lil’ Wayne. It was a superb critique of misogyny cleverly disguised as hip-hop, and their video brought up an aspect of black American culture that has long been a bur in my saddle. 

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Arts & Culture

 

 

Sunday
Jun222014

The Subtleties of Kara Walker’s “A Subtlety”

By Lucinda Holt

Photo by Lucinda Holt

True to form Kara Walker provokes, moves and inspires with her latest art installation, “A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant.” Walker has taken this idea of a subtlety or an ornamental confectionary design and created a mammifed sphinx with her butt thrust into the air. While there is nothing subtle about this sphinx, critics and bloggers have spent a lot of time analyzing and drawing delicate distinctions about what the Sugar Baby means. Given all the attention she has received, we had to see her for ourselves.

Photo by Lydia HoltThe title of Walker's work captures so much history—history that can feel a bit abstract—until you walk into what remains of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant and are confronted by several sugar or slave boys and this massive sphinx. As we make our way toward the sphinx, we notice the slave boys bearing baskets. One of us wonders if there is a hint of obsequiousness in the faces of the sugar boys. But it's difficult to make anything of their expressions because they have started to dissolve. There is something gruesome but also childlike and playful about these children in various states of disintegration. We couldn't help but think of all those slaves worn down by cutting cane, milling cane, cooking, baking and being served up as human treats.

Photo by Lucinda Holt

The boys lead the way to the sphinx, which is both majestic and so very vulnerable with her breasts and vulva exposed. When we walk behind the sphinx, there are her feet nestled under her bottom. They seem tender and strong—and again, exposed. When do you see the soles of another person's feet? They were as intimate as her bottom and vulva. And there we all were—looking. I couldn't help but think of Sarah Baartman on display and the sexual violence visited upon black women. This is something that we as a nation don't talk about, but it's one of the big things Walker's “A Subtlety” seemed to personfiy for me.

 

Photo by Lucinda Holt

The day a couple of us visited the installation, there was a group, “We Are Here,” who had encouraged people of color to come out and experience the installation and then react to it by writing their responses on sheets of newsprint set up just outside of the exhibit. They wanted to capture people's reaction to the work—reactions that went beyond the familiar objectification of a black female body. This objectification is not new, and even while we were there, we saw two girls taking photos where they appeared to be holding or pinching the sphinx's butt. Some might say this is harmless fun. But this isn't the only response to Walker's work. Below are a couple of the responses recorded as part of the “We Are Here” project:

 

 

While there is no “right” response to Walker's latest work, we were glad that these responses, which most of us don't hear everyday, were captured and contributed to the conversations people were having as they walked away from this art installation, thinking and talking about our complicated history with slavery, sugar and sexuality.

Monday
Jul152013

Music that is “…for all the world to see.”

By Nichole Rustin-Paschal

To watch “A Band Called Death,” followed by “Sound City,” and ending with “NY 77: The Coolest Year In Hell,” is to be draped in sheets of sound that sometimes suffocate with their relentless, frenetic energy and sometimes comfort with the nostalgic evocation of time and place. From Detroit to Burlington, from Seattle to Los Angeles, from the Bronx to SoHo, these documentaries depict the emergence of punk rock, disco, and hip hop as reflecting particular socioeconomic, geographic, and racial experiences of late twentieth century youth culture. “We are here, we are here, we are here.”

“A Band Called Death” recounts the fantastic resurrection story of a punk rock band of black brothers from Detroit. David, Dannis, and Bobby Hackney, taught always to back up their brothers, formed a band in the early 1970s, playing music that veered from “traditional” black music genres like gospel and R&B to rock; they played rock so loudly and gleefully the police were called several times to the family home. Despite their recognized talent, nobody wanted to record a band called Death and David, the eldest brother and leader, refused to change the name. His brothers argued with him about this privately, but accepted his decision. “Death” grew from David’s encounter with mortality, a tragic car accident leading him to think about life, music, and faith more deeply than he had before. David believed in the importance of Death’s music, despite the continued rejection the band encountered, and that people would come looking for their music, structures the story of the band’s history. Their music lives now because of family, because of record collectors, an intrepid reporter, and fans for whom the music represents truth.

In “Sound City,” David Grohl of the Foo Fighters and Nirvana, having taken his mother's advice, crafts through the history of a soundboard at the acclaimed recording studio, Sound City, an engrossing story about the transformation of the music business and the art of musical collaboration in the wake of digital technology edging out analog recording techniques. Grohl insists, and shows through the scenes of his own collaborations with other musicians in making the film, that music is intensely intimate, and is at its most expressive when musicians work together in live, musical dialogue. Analog recording technology represents an ideal setting for this dialogue because it forces musicians to make decisions about what they will create and how within the context of set parameters. Digital technology makes it all too easy and sanitizes what ought to be truthful expression of musical ideas. The engineers, producers, and musicians Grohl films echo him as they recount stories of how music brought them to Sound City. Within the limits of their recording budgets and the technology itself, those who recorded at Sound City found freedom.

The oldest of the films, “NY 77: The Coolest Year In Hell” focuses broadly on the state of New York City in 1977, viewing that year as a turning point politically, culturally, and musically for a city that had reached its lowest point financially and socially. Nearly bankrupt, wracked by the leadership of an inept mayor, rising rates of crime and poverty, New York’s woes were the fodder for music practices that shaped a generation. The history told isn’t new, but it resonates with its depiction of a gritty, grimy, but beautiful seventies era New York whose bravado, speech patterns, dance rhythms, and sartorial style continue to influence us. NY in the seventies was free, but the cost has been its “Disneyfication.”

These films explore how and why music is born—through the dialogue musicians engage in as they arrange a composition in preparation for recording, through the transformation of material disadvantages into dynamic art, through the awkward embrace and rejection of new technologies to create and record, through the knotty racial intricacies of influence, ownership, and reception, through the intensely individual work of learning an instrument inside and out such that it reshapes your subconscious, and through the social networks that keep music alive.

 

Wednesday
Jun052013

People All Over the World

By Lydia Holt

June is Black Music Month or alternately The World’s Most Popular Popular Music Month and the Pickaninnies are music lovers. We love gospel, funk, Afrobeat, house, R&B, rock, jazz, blues, merengue, jungle, pop, Afro Cuban, hip-hop, salsa and on and on and on and on. What all of these genres have in common are their roots in West African music. A musicologist I ain’t so I can’t break it down with precision but basically, the parts of these musics, the “here comes the good part” parts, the parts that can send you into the ugly cry and then have you making faces on the dance floor and shaking it extra hard, come courtesy of West African music. In those moments, in the music, you are Jerry Maguire and you are loving, not just black people but, the souls of black folk (shout out to W. E. B. DuBois!).

As evidenced by the proliferation of American popular music that is, black music, around the world, I would go so far as to say that the world loves black people, even if they don’t know it. And yes, there are mountains of evidence to the contrary but I want to focus on the love for a minute or two because it is the love that I hear so clearly in the music. I have to look no further than the songs that have been on heavy rotation on my phone for the love.

I hear the love in Chinese-American baritone saxophonist and artist Fred Ho’s music, fusing traditional Asian and African musics. Growing up in the minority in Amherst, MA in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he identified strongly with and gained inspiration from the Black Power and Black Arts movements.

“...I was struggling with my identity because everything American society wants you to assimilate and give up being Chinese. And in fact I faced a lot of racism growing up...It gave me pride, being an oppressed person, not in a negative sense but in the sense that we had to rise up.”

Fred Ho is feeling and spreading the love.

I hear the love in the music of Vijay Iyer, an Indian-American jazz pianist, and his bandmates in Vijay Iyer Trio. And I could stop right there, only citing the fact that they are a jazz trio as evidence that they are feeling the love. But wait, there’s more. The album Acclerando by the Vijay Iyer Trio is not a cover album but features superb covers of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” and “The Star of a Story” by Heatwave. I usually don’t see the point of covers unless they have been thoroughly digested and then reborn through another musician, not merely copied, and that is the case with these songs.

At first, “Human Nature” doesn’t sound like “Human Nature” at all but draws you slowly into the realization and unlike other covers of the song, doesn’t weigh so heavily on imitating Michael’s vocal stylings but instead allows a jazz trio to do what it do, playing both sides of the melodic and rhythmic fence with a nice helping of improvisation and playfulness in the latter half that makes “Human Nature” groove like never before.

“The Star of the Story” is played a little closer to home but picks up the pace and comes a little harder. Where Roy Ayers and Heatwave were bringing the mellow smooth 70s orchestration, the Vijay Iyer Trio play the song through a heavily jazz influenced hip-hop of the 90s filter giving this new version a pair of Timberlands and a down bubble jacket, OK, maybe just the Timberlands.

Vijay Iyer Trio is feeling and spreading the love.

I hear the love in much of Jamie Lidell’s music. The funk of the 70s and the R&B of the 80s are clear influences. The synth beats of the track “Big Love” off his self titled album immediately brings  “Pleasure Principle”, produced for Janet Jackson by Minneapolite and member of The Time, Monte Moir, to mind. The mention of Lidell could easily take me down a rabbit hole of British blue-eyed-soul singers but I will just mention Alex Clare. He is British, he is an Orthodox Jew, and he is giving love to black musical styles from both sides of the Atlantic.

“Big Love” 

“Treading Water”

Alex Clare- Treading Water from Pulse Films on Vimeo.

I could go on and on in this vein of people of all races and ethnicities loving black people through their musicthe examples are myriad. It makes me happy, plain and simple. It makes me happy to know that black music is bridging human-made gaps. It makes me happy to know that my cultural heritage is an integral part of spreading the love and light of music in a sometimes overwhelmingly benighted world.

People make music to say the things words alone are inadequately equipped to express. The music that makes you cry, scream, dance and jump for joy was created by another human being and in that moment of exaltation you are in emotional and spiritual synchronization with the creators of that music, people who may be long gone. You are feeling the love across expanses of time and space. Such is the beauty and wonder of music. (Cue Ohio Players’ “Love Train”, no Luther Vandross’ “Power of Love/Love Power”, or maybe “Real Real” by Nina Simone—aw hell, whatever it is, just turn it up!)

Monday
Jan092012

What’s Up With the Giving Tree?

 

By Lydia Holt

A friend recently lent us a copy of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein complete with a very creepy picture of Silverstein on the back. My five-year-old saw the book on my desk, and the other night he asked to read it. “I used to read it at my old school,” he said. Who knew? We read the book. I had never read the book and only vaguely knew what happened in the story. In short, there is a tree (referred to using female pronouns) and a little boy. The tree loves the little boy and the little boy loves the tree. The boy climbs the tree, eats its apples, hugs the tree, swings from it’s branches and they have great time. As he grows older, the little boy plays with the tree less and less, and when the boy does come to visit, it is only to ask for something. To help the boy, the tree gives him her apples, branches, and finally, her trunk. By the end of the book, the boy is an old man, and the tree is a stump. The boy asks for a place to sit, and the tree offers her stump, “And the tree was happy,” to quote the final line of the book. Come again?

I said something like, “That boy is kind of selfish.” My son responded, “Yeah. He should just get apples from the tree, not leaves and branches and wood. Trees have lots of apples.” On the one hand, he seems to recognize that the apples are a renewable resource and the wood of the tree, not so much. On the other, he’s assuming the boy should get something from the tree. I’m of two minds about it as well. I think the boy was being a total ass for asking the tree to provide for him over and over again. But then I also think the tree was being a chump by being completely self-sacrificing to satisfy the boy. Every time he says he needs something, money, a house, a boat, she says, "Take my ‘x’ and be happy." Being a stump for him to sit on makes her happy?!

I’m not sure what Silverstein was going for in the story, and I haven’t read any of the surely very insightful commentary out there, I’m just wondering what other regular folk think. Is he saying, don’t be a pushover like the tree? Or ask for what you want in life? Or if you’re a girl, the best way to be of service in the world and be happy is to give until there’s nothing left of you but a stump? Trust, Uncle Shel, it’ll make you happy. You’ll never be happy, even if you find a tree that will do anything to make you so? Happiness is sitting on a tree stump, but you won’t realize it until you’re old and withered? Is the tree the parent, forever giving to the child while expecting nothing in return? I can get the parent thing. I don’t expect to get anything back from my children, I’m just doing my job, but the whole giving until you’re a stump thing is too much and I don't want my children to depend on others for their happiness. Your thoughts?

 

Friday
Dec302011

Happy New Year From The Pickaninny Papers!

Gestation by Lydia Holt

What will you give birth to in 2012?