I am the person responsible for most of the photos you see at the top of all the articles published on this blog. Every week I sift through thousands of stock photos to pick something that is both free and illustrates adequately the article’s subject.Read More
On the HBO show Last Week Tonight, comedian and host John Oliver joked in a monologue about “the United Kingdom, where I’m formally known as ‘who?’”Read More
It’s hard to overstate the importance of mothers to society and to the individual lives of their children; each of us can provide anecdotal evidence of that.Read More
By Órla Murray (Staff Writer)
Mr. Activist, all hipster vanguard peasant chic with a scruffy beard and an identity-performance-ensemble worthy of Far Left Fashion[i]. He makes speeches, he walks at the front of the march, he has read all of Das Kapital in the original German, and he knows best.
This caricature is all too familiar to those of us who have engaged in radical politics, in student activism, in trade unions and environmental movements, in left-wing and anarchist groups. Sometimes Mr. Activist isn’t a man, sometimes we can all be Mr. Activist, because it is seductive to think that you are the expert, to enjoy others’ respect and admiration, and to gain a little bit of power even if just for a moment.
This blog piece is primarily based on my own experiences witnessing (both first-hand and through in-depth personal discussions with other activists) a variety of political organising groups, mostly in Edinburgh. In such activist groups there is often a bizarre division of labour whereby those in charge of movements are often white middle-class cis heterosexual men, while women, other men, and non-binary people are quite literally in the kitchen making and serving food. This undervalued and invisible labour is essential to sustain the movement, but does not attract the same glory and prestige as more public, performative roles. And just as in the rest of the world it is gendered and raced and classed.
But perhaps the most invisible work being done is the emotional and social work that occurs after the meetings, in the pub, in someone’s flat. Who listens and comforts when others cry? Who manages the emotional fallout when everyone is sleeping with everyone else? Who listens to the all-too-frequent stories of rape and sexual assault? Who is doing the important social work of welcoming new members and making sure people are okay?
This discussion is not particular to Edinburgh or to Scotland; one only has to look at the multitude of blogs and online discussions of women, queer and trans folk, people of colour, disabled people, and many others sidelined by left-wing, environmental, anarchist and other radical political groupings that fail to put their politics into practice ‘at home’.
Sometimes the best activism we can do, especially as a person with more privileges, is to stand aside, to be silent and listen; to ask actual people right now how their lives are organised under contemporary capitalism. And often it is best if this activism is quiet and private and not performed as explained in Black Girl Dangerous – How to Tell the Difference between Real Solidarity and ‘Ally Theater’. Unless you are becoming increasingly politically self-aware, listening to people’s experiences, and modestly accepting that you are not always right, then you are perpetuating the same oppressive structures and hierarchies of knowledge and power that we are all trying to dismantle.
Often, those who hold a lot of informal social power in the hierarchy of political groups also have a lot of sex with a lot of different activists, which introduces a ‘private’ and deeply intimate power dynamic between them and others. This is often known but left undiscussed; the elephant in the room. Each time a ‘good activist’ commits a rape or a sexual assault, there is a collective horror: how could one of us do something so awful?
We are simultaneously trying to create something better and constantly being confronted with the reality that we are so far from being there. The spectre of rape and sexual assault, and a complete inability to deal with such traumas, haunts activist circles, as the infamous decline of the Socialist Workers’ Party demonstrates. The emotional toll on survivors and those who support them in cleaning up the mess after activists sexually assault, abuse, rape, silence, ignore, exclude, sideline, and mistreat other activists is an enormous problem, one that often involves women taking diplomatic roles or managing grievances behind the scenes. And yet, this work is not valued in the same way as activities that are seen as closer to addressing the ‘real issue’. These activities are often treated like a distracting ‘interpersonal dispute’ rather than part of the structural oppression we are fighting against.
This is emotional and social labour – the unseen, undervalued, and essential work that is done to sustain activists and movements – and it is undervalued and rendered invisible just like other ‘women’s work’: household labour, childcare, and low-level administrative jobs. This gendered division of labour is sometimes justified through essentialism, (“oh, it’s something women are just better at”), or more perniciously dismissed as mere coincidence that more women than men are undertaking such labour. If we want to challenge this hierarchy of work in the world, we must begin by recognising and challenging it in our own lives.
Part of political organising must be to acknowledge and value emotional and social labour. It is not enough to recognise that some activists spend a lot of time making sure people are looking after themselves. We must also value this as on a par with direct actions. Because there is no point working out a perfectly clear Marxist analysis if one does not take heed of the actual division of labour happening right ther e in political organising.
Perhaps part of the problem is a perception that looking after oneself and one’s friends, sisters, and comrades is selfish or a distraction. How can we think of ourselves when we are trying to fight for the liberation of Palestine or an end to police brutality? However, as Audre Lorde puts it: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”[ii] This much discussed quote has become an important antidote for those, often women, who put their own needs secondary to others, to their job, to their activism, to the cause. It is an important reminder that it is not individualistic to care for yourself when your everyday life is littered with racism, sexism, and homophobia, and that the world we live is organised not in your image or with you in mind.
The politics of self-care acknowledges that people experience the world differently. It is more exhausting, more confronting, and more alienating to experience the world as a woman, a person of colour, as part of the LGBTQ+ community, a disabled person, and a person of the working class or of the global South. The energy exerted on just existing when one’s personhood is at odds with what is presumed ‘normal’ means that self-care is a revolutionary act.[iii] We cannot wait for the revolution to take care of each other and ourselves; in fact that is part of the revolution.[iv]
This is because ‘the system’ does not exist in the abstract, floating above us, oppressing us, with a few big evil men deciding how it works. It exists in everyday interactions, in writing and talking, and peoples’ actions; it is fluid and difficult to pin down, and constantly adapting and changing and appropriating our attempts to challenge it. We are all complicit to a certain extent because we live in this world.
Indeed, many practices that are deemed radical or revolutionary are the privilege of those with the means to engage in them. While there is a place for the very performative, direct actions that I mentioned before, these disruptions do not, in and of themselves, consist of revolutionary change. Rather, they are stark reminders that things are still not okay, and can help galvanise support and inspire further action.
And while that can be part of the fight, the revolution will not be one final stand-off with the Metropolitan Police. It will be the cumulative effort of millions of tiny revolutionary acts that slowly change the very nature of being in the world. By changing our own behaviour and trying to live out the utopian world we want to create, we can begin to create little pockets of refuge to escape the oppressive structures, if only for a moment. In the highly individualised, neo-liberal world, little acts of collaboration or of radical love for ourselves and others become revolutionary acts.
[i] Far Left Fashion was a Tumblr between 2012 and 2013 that parodied street-style type fashion profiles, uploading photos and profiles of left-wing activists, usually at protests, in the UK - https://www.facebook.com/FarLeftFashion/timeline.
[ii] Pg. 131, Lorde, A. (1988) A Burst of Light, Firebrand Books, Michigan.
[iv] A very useful discussion about mental health amongst activists – Class Struggle and Mental Health: Live to Fight Another Day.
Those of you who know me are aware of my undying love for David Bowie. My well-known fascination (slightly bordering on blind obsession) with the artist can be described as being so ingrained in my daily life that my college roommate once lovingly made me a bracelet with the letters WWDBD, or What Would David Bowie Do?Read More
Lately I have found myself walking around town, going about my everyday activities, and getting increasingly frustrated. I’m not frustrated with the average worries of modern life such as a busy daily commute, and eternally long bank lines.Read More
By Michal Shimonovich (Staff Writer)
Not everyone considers rap music an insightful critique of urban violence, income inequality and racism[i]. Often, it’s seen as a comprehensive list of derogatory terms used to describe women and opposing gangs, which can double as the backdrop to a frat party. The appropriation of rap music by DJs has turned a soliloquy about inner city violence into a club banger.
But rap music is so much more than that. It can have the intimacy of a diary entry and has framed perspectives on politicized subjects in an approachable way. Yes it was a hit that became an anthem, but New York State of Mind by Nas also discusses a day in the life of drug dealers contending with police raids. By taking the time to grasp the context of rap music, I was able to understand the environment rap originates from and the people that give it a voice. But that voice uses a vocabulary we might need a different dictionary to understand.
Rap and hip-hop were my first introduction to New York. Before I saw my first rap music video on TRL – Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems from Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumously released album, Life After Death in 1997 – my view of the city was selective. I thought New York was Katz’s Deli and the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sundays. The rap music I started listening to – Erik B and Rakim, Gangstarr, De La Soul – was the closest thing I had to a first-hand account of racial and economic diversity on the periphery of my New York. Rap music opened my eyes (and ears) to a part of the city I never ventured into.
There has to be an awareness of racial and socioeconomic differences when analysing rap music. As Kendrick Lamar says, “I’m not talking to people from the suburbs. I’m talking as somebody who’s been snatched out of cars and had rifles pointed at me.[ii]” However, it feels awkward because, simply, I am not, nor have I ever been one of those somebodies. Instead, I’m keenly aware of the fact that I most closely resemble peers that grew up in Fitzgeraldian suburban opulence. Rap music is the Triboro Bridge connecting me to the reality of Urban America I otherwise would have missed.
Casual listeners might miss the message in rap because the references are beyond our colloquialisms. Eloquent and poetic rappers rap about their struggles and the limitations of their environment. Without fully understanding the context of these references, we might miss the perspective of a black male trying to be both a supporter of his community and a successful musician in a post-Trayvon Martin/Ferguson/Eric Garner America. A recent example of a really insightful rap album is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. It discussed black-on-black violence, financial trajectories of wealthy black entertainers, and society’s perception of young African American men, just to name a few. Below are some references I selected that occur both in Lamar’s songs, and in other notable rap songs.
“35 years old”: There are many instances of rappers associating their fate and trajectory, whether it be death or success, with an age. Kanye West on We Don’t Care raps, “weren’t supposed to make it past 25 / Joke’s on you, we still alive.” Kendrick Lamar later samples – in the song Mortal Man – an interview with the late rapper 2Pac, who says that African Americans after the age of 30 probably have most of the fight taken out of them. 2Pac prescribes the fate of African Americans to make a difference to end at the age of 30. Lamar raps on Wesley’s Theory that his level of education (“remember, you ain’t pass economics in school”) is more likely to get him investigated for tax fraud, like actor Wesley Snipes, than make him capable of understanding finances. He says, “I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before 35.” Lamar believes that even if he does beat the odds West and 2Pac prophesize, his lack of personal finance skills will threaten his financial success before he becomes eligible at 35 to become President of the United States. His success as an African-American is difficult to sustain: he reminds us later on the track that ”anybody can get it /the hard part is keeping it.”
“Negus”: Negus roughly translates to King, as it is commonly used in Ancient Eritrea and Ethiopia. A homophone to the n-word, this is an example of Lamar reclaiming a derogatory term by saying it has been used wrongly in rap music. King also has another connotation for Lamar because west coast legends Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and The Game crowned Kendrick the “New King of the West Coast[iii].” King Kunta (see below) is the name of another song on the album and is used in conjunction with the name of a slave. Juxtaposing ‘king’, a slave name, is also a way Lamar reclaims his ancestor’s legacy and creates his own narrative around it:
“The history books overlook the word and hide it
America tried to make it to a house divided
The homies don't recognize we been using it wrong
So I'ma break it down and put my game in a song
N-E-G-U-S, say it with me”
Kunta Kinte: A Gambian who was enslaved in America, and whose story was made public in the novel and miniseries, Roots, Lamar uses Kunta in his song King Kunta to describe the range of achievement African Americans have faced – from slaves to kings (see above). Kinte had his right foot cut off for trying to run away from the plantation where he was enslaved, indicated in Lamar’s “Now I run the game, got the whole world talkin’, King Kunta / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him.”
Lucy: Lucy is a play on Lucifer or possibly “lucre,” money (which has a negative connotation. In Lamar’s sophomore album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, Sherane personifies temptation (“you said Sherane ain’t got nothing on Lucy/I said you crazy”). Here, ‘Lucy’ provided him with the means to move his mother into a better neighbourhood. But he also knows the evils of money/devil are all around him.
Trayvon Martin: Trayvon Martin was an unarmed black teenager who was killed by a night patrolman in 2012, and whose death drew national attention. Many rappers other than Lamar have referenced Martin in their lyrics. Rapper Lupe Fiasco compared Martin’s neighbourhood to that of war torn countries. But The Blacker the Berry is not a tribute song; Lamar is reflecting on his self-described hypocrisy at having experienced gang violence and also mourning a violent death. This might have been in response to the controversy Lamar stirred when, in an interview, he reflected that respect for one another within the community must exist before police will respect that community. Some supported what he said, while others felt that he was excusing the behaviour of those policemen. Even this common reference was used to give context to a greater debate about police brutality and, perhaps more importantly, a nuanced insight into the internal dilemmas.
Oprah Winfrey: Lamar dedicated a verse at the end of the first single of the album, i, to Oprah Winfrey (“So I’ma dedicate this one verse to Oprah / On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us”). Oprah Winfrey has objected in the past (and in conversation with Jay-Z) to using the n-word in rap music out of respect to those who were derided and degraded by the term throughout history. The version of this song was different than the radio-friendly single that later won Lamar a Grammy. He added a post script to the album, and this amendment is another perspective of a word that turns communities “to a house divided.” His opinion on the n-word is less important here than his understanding that its appropriation in rap music has been divisive. Establishing its history allows Lamar to take agency of the word that has gone from archaic to derogatory to somewhat normalised. He concludes that respect for one another, even if “you wore a different gang colour than mine,” is the only way to win in “a war … based on apartheid and discrimination.”
Rap, like other mediums of expression, deserves a nuanced critique. Because it has historically been a significant forum of expression for the African American community, the attention listeners give it has the potential to bridge the gap of understanding with the community. Like all art, rap isn’t made in a vacuum. Its background and context gives it layers of depth that we should try and parse when engaging with all forms of music and art. Music is great in that way, as it is a soliloquy available to the masses. His references are biblical, historical and pop cultural in nature, and his message is political. While this sometimes makes the meaning harder to understand, doing so makes it much more valuable.
[i] The name of the 6th studio album of Atlanta-based rapper, Killer Mike. Kendrick Lamar references critics’ hypocrisy of hip-hop: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum”
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