City of God – “If you run, the beast will get you. If you stay, the beast will eat you”

 This electrifying picture is part tender coming-of-age film and part gang-warfare epic from the Brazilian slum, or favela, told from the viewpoint of the children who manage to be both its underclass and its criminal overlords. It’s a movie with all the dials cranked up to 11, an overwhelming, intoxicating assault on the senses, and a thriller so tense that you might have the red seat plush in front of you – or even some unfortunate’s hair – gripped in both fists.

Amores Perros – increasingly the touchstone of the Latin new wave – began with a car chase and a dead animal. Director Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, co-produced under the aegis of Walter Salles, has something similar, but invests his images with more overtly mythic qualities, irresistibly potent from the very beginning. A swaggering gangster is about to slaughter a chicken in the middle of the favela; it escapes, and there is a hilarious but still oddly gripping chase sequence as the bird makes its bid for freedom.

As it exits an alley and scampers into the nearest the place has to a main thoroughfare, the chicken, with a hundred bullets and cleavers with its name on it, finds itself face to face with the movie’s leading character, 18-year-old Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues), who has every reason to think he is going to be murdered. Behind Rocket appear a number of law-enforcement officers in armoured vehicles making one of their periodic terrified and ineffective forays into the ‘hood; in front of him, the gangster and his courtiers all produce weapons. A wacky, black-comic interlude has morphed with appalling speed into a potential bloodbath.

The sacrificial purpose of the chicken conveys with the force of a blunt instrument how cheap life has come to be in the ghetto, and how victimhood and aggression have become fused together. The wiseguys, their cowering subordinates, their stoic womenfolk and the dead bodies around them are all chickens – and they are mostly all children.

Never before have criminals looked so young: pre-pubescent, in fact. The City of God is like one vast, dysfunctional family, neighbours from hell with no neighbours, with no parents or concerned adults. It is a cross between an orphanage and an abattoir.

The movie tells the story of this slum, a grim housing project for the poor, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s; it tracks the story of both Rocket, a would-be press photographer (and a character whose purpose is probably to ventriloquise the sensibility of Paulo Lins, on whose novel the film is based), and Li’l Dice, who follows his gangster vocation with the passionate severity of a monk – the latter renaming himself, having notionally grown to man’s estate, as Li’l Ze (Leandro Firmino da Hora).

Crime and football are traditionally the ways out of the ghetto, and Meirelles raises this second option only to obliterate it. A bunch of kids gather round to play keepy-uppy; but this is abandoned when three hoodlums rush on to the pitch, seeking refuge from the police – and football, the commodity in which Brazil is an unquestioned superpower, is never mentioned again. What is left is the great game of violence, of intimidation and rape, of abject gang loyalty for children for whom the ties of family, church or nationhood are meaningless jokes: seething with rage, resentment and collectively enacting one continuous, unending scattered act of pre-emptive revenge.

The favela known as the City of God has been described as the film’s chief “character”, and as a location it looks unglamorously real in a way that cannot be approximated by set design. There are some scenes at the beach, but the familiar world of Rio is light years away. At first glance, the dreary rows of jerry-built sheds in the middle of nowhere look very much like sheds for factory-farmed animals, or an encampment for refugees or prisoners of war. It is seen in broad daylight, at night, and at one stage in a glowing crimson sunset. But nothing alleviates its grimness and inhumanity – at the very best it resembles a purpose-built suburb of poverty.

 

Crime has, in a nauseous reversal of liberal social thinking, almost been “designed into” the City of God, but any foreseeable conventional breakdown of law and order has evolved one or two steps further into the corruption and degradation of children. Li’l Dice, a tiny kid, plans a staggeringly audacious hold-up of a brothel, but in a fit of pique at being relegated to the status of lookout by his older comrades, returns to the scene of the crime to murder every single innocent customer and employee of the “motel” – it is a truly chilling moment of unalloyed evil.

Meirelles’s storytelling rushes forward at a full, breathless tilt, swerving, accelerating, doubling back on itself, amplifying the roles and experiences of incidental characters. A bravura narrative moment reveals itself when he discloses the history of one single apartment, showing how it becomes degraded and denatured as it ceases to be a family home and becomes a drug-dealer’s den. Meirelles’s film flashes and sweeps around you, dizzying, disorientating, intoxicating.

His mastery of his material consists not merely in the adaptation of Paulo Lins’s novel, but a direct engagement with the ghetto itself, and his triumphant recruitment of a veritable army of non-professionals is the result of an almost military raid on this dangerous territory. This is something that combines film-making with oral history. It is a compelling piece of work.

 

Marcus Garvey – “One God, One Aim, One Destiny”

Garvey was born in Jamaica and immigrated to Harlem in 1916 at the age of 28. In his homeland he had been an admirer of Booker T. Washington‘s philosophy of self-improvement for people of African descent and had formed the Jamaica Improvement Association. When he arrived in America his ideas expanded and he became a Black Nationalist. For him, Africa was the ancestral home and spiritual base for all people of African descent. His political goal was to take Africa back from European domination and build a free and United Black Africa. He advocated the Back-to-Africa Movement and organized a shipping company called the Black Star Line which was part of his program to conduct international trade between black Africans and the rest of the world in order to “uplift the race” and eventually return to Africa.

Garvey studied all of the literature he could find on African history and culture and decided to launch the Universal Negro Improvement Association with the goal of unifying “all the Negro peoples of the world into one great body and to establish a country and government absolutely on their own”. The motto of the U.N.I.A. was “One God! One Aim! One Destiny.” The Negro World was the U.N.I.A. weekly newspaper founded in 1918. It was published in French and Spanish as well as English. In it African history and heroes were glorified.

The ranks of the U.N.I.A. were comprised of African “nobility” – knights of the Nile, dukes of the Niger and Uganda; knights of Ethiopia, duchesses, etc. Garvey himself was the “Provisional President of Africa” and he and the members of his empire paraded in elaborate military uniforms. Harlem loved parades and street ceremonies, and the U.N.I.A. gave the grandest. During their annual conventions, thousands of delegates from all over the United States, the Caribbean, Central America and Africa marched up and down the streets of Harlem with their banners, uniforms and colorfully decorated cars. Garvey travelled throughout the United States speaking and meeting with African-American leaders. In the post World War I economic crisis and with racial discrimination, lynching and poor housing, the masses of Black people were ready for a leader who was aggressive and had a plan to “uplift the race”. The U.N.I.A. grew quickly. By 1919 there were over 30 branches throughout the United States, the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa. Garvey claimed over a million people had .joined his organization in 3 years.

In nine years Garvey built the largest mass movement of people of African descent in this country’s history. It began to fail after he was convicted of mail fraud and was deported from the U.S. The Black Star Line failed because of purported mismanagement and lack of sufficient funds. However, the U.N.I.A. still survives today and Garvey left a legacy of racial pride and identification with a glorious African heritage for African Americans.

 

Blitz The Ambassador – “Native Sun”

 

Native Sun is the follow up to Blitz The Ambassador’s 2009 soulful blend of hip-hop “Stereotype”. Using the jazzy sounds of his previous efforts and taking it one step further, Blitz embraces his African roots and thus we are treated to an expansive mix of hip-hop and afrobeat.

 

An ancient horn takes centre stage and removes us from our comfort zone. This sound is quickly joined by light African drumming, and we are left wondering how Blitz is going to rap over such traditional production. But we are quickly reminded this is a hip-hop album as the track begins to incorporate vinyl scratching and other more familiar sounds. Lyrically Blitz is taking us on a cinematic journey through his homeland. It’s a burst of creative genius using the medium of positive hip-hop music.

“Dear Africa” is an open letter to his country of birth. “I wonder how you keep a smile on your face, sun is still shining reminding me of your warm embrace”, it is a genuinely poetic piece of writing which is complemented by a rich blend of mellow sounds.

He is accompanied by Les Nubians on the chorus which adds to the authentic nature of the album.“Akwaaba” is rapped almost entirely in African (a common feature of the album) but its uplifting horns and uptempo rhythms means it remains universal in it’s appeal. At first the sounds are a little unusual to the casual listener, but we are soon immersed in the world of Native Sun and I for one fully embraced its bold delivery.

A real highlight of the LP is “Best I Can” Feat. Corneille. It features haunting guitar strings combined with Blitz rapping at a pace which comes close to a Bizzy Bone or Twista. Lyrically he pours out his heart on this track whilst a distorted choir further enhance his verses. Corneille sings “I hear these voices in my head, I look at the choices that I made, trying to be the best I can”. It is a reflective mantra which encapsulates the mood of the song.

The use of gently strum guitars is evident throughout the project, usually accompanied by soft drums. Although you could be forgiven for thinking that this music sounds light, Blitz carries a powerful lyrical style which brings a revolutionary message of unity.  Therefore it is anything but.

A jazzy interlude serves as a bridge to the second part of the album. “Accra City Blues” is a journey through a war torn city, I would compare it favourably to Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, it may yet become an African hip-hop anthem for years to come. Certainly it reflects the people better than past attempts by plastic artists such as Akon. Many mainstream attempts at African music often result in tokenism, this is the real deal. The choice of guests on the album is a real strong point.

Chuck D. makes a brief appearance on “The Oracle” whilst underground favourite Shad joins Blitz on the title track “Native Sun”. The cohesive nature of the sounds make it impossible to separate their quality.

Rather than feeling like a track by track album, it plays more like a melting pot of expermental music which amazingly keeps shape amongst the chaos of African/hip-hop fusion.

The pieces are emotionally layered in that they are both celebratory and honest in their representation of African life. Proceedings come to a close with “Ex-Itrance”, a continuation of traditional African sounds met with Blitz in spoken word form.

At 12 tracks long the project is a neat 44-minutes and yet there is enough music to digest for years to come. It does what every great album should do and leaves a lasting impression.

 

 

The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon

Frantz_Fanon_The_Wretched_of_the_Earth

“Each generation must discover its mission, fulfill it or betray it, in relative opacity.”

 

 

In 1961 Frantz Fanon dictated most of his last book, Les Damnés de la Terre, translated as The Wretched of the Earth, from a mattress on the floor of a flat in Tunis. He was 36 years old and dying of leukaemia. The disease had recently blinded him for some weeks but he managed to complete the book in ten weeks in a race against death.

Fanon, who was from Martinique in the Caribbean, had ended up Tunisia after he joined the Algerian national liberation movement in 1954. He had joined the Free French Forces fighting the Nazis as a teenager and, as a result, had been able to study medicine in France after the war. He had specialised in psychiatry and had taken a post in a psychiatric hospital in colonial Algeria.

 

The Wretched of the Earth draws on Fanon’s involvement in the Algerian struggle against French colonialism as well as his travels around Africa as an ambassador for the Algerian national liberation movement. It begins with an account of the colonial city, ‘this world divided in two’, and goes on to examine the internalisation of colonial violence among the oppressed, the resulting violence among the oppressed, and the moment when violence is turned back on colonial oppression.

Fanon then turns his critical attention towards anti‑colonial resistance, stressing that in the colonial situation Marxism needs to be ‘stretched’ and paying particular attention to the political agency of ordinary people, including peasants and the urban poor. He is committed to forms of struggle that are genuinely mass-based and participatory.

The book’s third focus is an examination of the pathologies of the regimes that came to power in Africa after colonialism. In Fanon’s estimation they took over rather than undid colonial systems, demobilised the mass movements that had brought them to power and used their own political credibility to entrench authoritarian and predatory regimes. Against this, still committed to a radical humanism, he posed a refusal of technocratic approaches to development and the full involvement of the people in both political and economic life. The final chapter of the book, drawing on Fanon’s case notes from his period as a psychiatrist in Algeria, investigates the damage done to human beings by colonialism and violence.

The Wretched of the Earth was banned on publication in France and copies were seized from bookshops. But it was heralded in radical black circles in the US and taken up in places such as Iran and Sri Lanka. Fifty years later it remains the key text in radical circles in South Africa, where it is regularly cited by grass-roots militants.

Initial readings of the book often caricatured Fanon’s endorsement of violence against colonial regimes. Fanon’s support for violent struggle was often read outside the context of the extraordinary violence of French colonialism in Algeria and there has been a racist double standard in which Fanon is excoriated for endorsing violent struggle while white intellectuals, such as, say, Jean-Paul Sartre or George Orwell, are not subject to the same condemnation. Although he had been decorated for bravery while serving in the Free French Forces, Fanon had a personal horror of violence and was acutely aware of the damage that it can do to individuals and societies.

Many of the misreadings of The Wretched of the Earth are due to the way the book is developed as an unfolding narrative in which consciousness changes in the vortex of struggle. Statements affirmed with unqualified emphasis at one point are often questioned later on. This means that the book has to be read as a whole to be properly understood and that simply taking isolated quotes or extracts will not give an accurate impression of the author’s intentions.

Fanon left this world as The Wretched of the Earth entered it. Fifty years on, his final book retains an extraordinary political charge in countries where it remains necessary to oppose both new forms of colonial or neo-colonial power and new forms of elite accommodation with that power in the name of the nation.

 

The Harder They Come -“Dem a loot, dem a shoot, dem a wail in shanty town “

Premiering one year after the release of Shaft and one year before Bob Marley and the Wailers’Catch a Fire dropped, Perry Henzell’s The Harder They Come (1972) combined blaxploitation fantasies with developing-world realities and in the process, brought reggae music to the world. The first feature-length film from Jamaica—which at the time of THTC‘s release had been an independent country for only 10 years after three centuries of British rule—Henzell’s debut, being shown in a restored 35mm print at the IFC Center, is the definitive postcolonial cult-movie musical. Raw and rough, The Harder They Come mixes vérité footage of Kingston privation (shacks, shanties) and exultation (rapt moviegoers taking in a western, swaying-to-the-spirit church attendees) with a rude-boy bildungsroman.

Henzell, who was born to a plantocratic white family in Jamaica’s north coast in 1936, and his co-writer, Trevor Rhone, a playwright instrumental in shaping the island’s indigenous theater, based the story on an actual cult hero: Ivanhoe “Rhygin” Martin, a prison escapee known as the “Jamaican Dillinger” who was shot dead by the police in 1948. Played by Jimmy Cliff, who had released four albums by the time of his acting debut in THTC, Ivan is introduced as a naif on a bus headed to his mother’s house in Kingston with a mango and news of a death in the family. Although the bumpkin—often addressed as “Country Boy”—is robbed of everything within his first hours in the capital, he still holds out hope he can make it big as a singer. He soon finds work doing odd jobs for a preacher—and acquires a new nickname. Peacocking in apple caps, skintight tees, elaborately patterned rayon shirts, and snug, pinstriped trousers (Cliff’s sartorial style in the film is almost as iconic as its soundtrack, electrifying nuggets made by various artists between 1967 and 1972), Ivan now answers to “Pretty Boy,” and he can’t help but wear down the resistance of the minister’s chaste ward, Elsa (Janet Bartley).

 

Ivan takes off with Elsa and finally persuades the corrupt music tycoon Hilton (Bob Charlton) to give him some time in the recording studio. His single—the film’s infectious, mercenary title track (“So as sure as the sun will shine/I’m gonna get my share now of what’s mine”)—becomes a smash, for which Ivan receives only $20. “Who’s makin’ all the money?” he asks after being stiffed once again during his short career as a pot dealer. Gunning down some cops—many involved in the ganja trade—Ivan lams it, his record in constant rotation, and his legend sealed.

There are almost no white faces in THTC, yet the dysfunctional legacy of 300-plus years of colonial rule is present in every frame. “I AM HERE I AM EVERYWHERE” reads the graffiti Ivan has sprayed to torment his pursuers—a tag that endears him to those powerless to fight against endemic corruption. The Harder They Come debuted the same year that Jamaicans had just voted out the conservative Jamaica Labour Party, but civil war between the JLP and the left-leaning People’s National Party would erupt shortly after. Henzell would make only one other film: the tourist-board-friendly No Place Like Home (2006), which premiered in Jamaica the day after his death. That project’s softness reflected the dilution of the music that his first film had been so instrumental in exporting.

Fela Kuti – “Music Is The Weapon”

It’s almost impossible to overstate the impact and importance of Fela Anikulapo (Ransome) Kuti (or just Fela as he’s more commonly known) to the global musical village: producer, arranger, musician, political radical, outlaw. He was all that, as well as showman par excellence, inventor of Afro-beat, an unredeemable sexist, and a moody megalomaniac. His death on August 3, 1997 of complications from AIDS deeply affected musicians and fans internationally, as a musical and sociopolitical voice on a par with Bob Marley was silenced. A press release from the United Democratic Front of Nigeria on the occasion of Fela’s death noted: “Those who knew you well were insistent that you could never compromise with the evil you had fought all your life. Even though made weak by time and fate, you remained strong in will and never abandoned your goal of a free, democratic, socialist Africa.” This is as succinct a summation of Fela’s political agenda as one is likely to find.

Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria, north of Lagos in 1938, Fela’s family was firmly middle class as well as politically active. His father was a pastor (and talented pianist), his mother active in the anti-colonial, anti-military, Nigerian home rule movement. So at an early age, Fela experienced politics and music in a seamless combination. His parents, however, were less interested in his becoming a musician and more interested in his becoming a doctor, so they packed him off to London in 1958 for what they assumed would be a medical education; instead, Fela registered at Trinity College’s school of music. Tired of studying European composers, Fela formed his first band, Koola Lobitos, in 1961, and quickly became a fixture on the London club scene. He returned to Nigeria in 1963 and started another version of Koola Lobitos that was more influenced by the James Brown-style singing of Geraldo Pina from Sierra Leone. Combining this with elements of traditional high life and jazz, Fela dubbed this intensely rhythmic hybrid “Afro-beat,” partly as critique of African performers whom he felt had turned their backs on their African musical roots in order to emulate current American pop music trends.

In 1969, Fela brought Koola Lobitos to Los Angeles to tour and record. They toured America for about eight months using Los Angeles as a home base. It was while in L.A. that Fela hooked up with a friend, Sandra Isidore, who introduced him to the writings and politics of Malcolm X, Eldridge Cleaver (and by extension the Black Panthers), and other proponents of Black nationalism and Afrocentrism. Impressed at what he read, Fela was politically revivified and decided that some changes were in order: first, the name of the band, as Koola Lobitos became Nigeria 70; second, the music would become more politically explicit and critical of the oppression of the powerless worldwide. After a disagreement with an unscrupulous promoter who turned them in to the Immigration and Naturalization Services, Fela and band were charged with working without work permits. Realizing that time was short before they were sent back to Nigeria, they were able to scrape together some money to record some new songs in L.A. What came to be known as the ’69 Los Angeles Sessions were remarkable, an indication of a maturing sound and of the raucous, propulsive music that was to mark Fela’s career. Afrobeat’s combination of blaring horn sections, antiphonal vocals, Fela’s quasi-rapping pidgin English, and percolating guitars, all wrapped up in a smoldering groove (in the early days driven by the band’s brilliant drummer Tony Allen) that could last nearly an hour, was an intoxicating sound. Once hooked, it was impossible to get enough.

Upon returning to Nigeria, Fela founded a communal compound-cum-recording studio and rehearsal space he called the Kalakuta Republic, and a nightclub, the Shrine. It was during this time that he dropped his given middle name of “Ransome” which he said was a slave name, and took the name “Anikulapo” (meaning “he who carries death in his pouch”) . Playing constantly and recording at a ferocious pace, Fela and band (who were now called Africa 70) became huge stars in West Africa. His biggest fan base, however, was Nigeria’s poor. Because his music addressed issues important to the Nigerian underclass (specifically a military government that profited from political exploitation and disenfranchisement), Fela was more than a simply a pop star; like Bob Marley in Jamaica, he was the voice of Nigeria’s have-nots, a cultural rebel. This was something Nigeria’s military junta tried to nip in the bud, and from almost the moment he came back to Nigeria up until his death, Fela was hounded, jailed, harassed, and nearly killed by a government determined to silence him. In one of the most egregious acts of violence committed against him, 1,000 Nigerian soldiers attacked his Kalakuta compound in 1977 (the second government-sanctioned attack). Fela suffered a fractured skull as well as other broken bones; his 82-year old mother was thrown from an upstairs window, inflicting injuries that would later prove fatal. The soldiers set fire to the compound and prevented fire fighters from reaching the area. Fela’s recording studio, all his master tapes and musical instruments were destroyed.

After the Kalakuta tragedy, Fela briefly lived in exile in Ghana, returning to Nigeria in 1978. In 1979 he formed his own political party, MOP (Movement of the People), and at the start of the new decade renamed his band Egypt 80. From 1980-1983, Nigeria was under civilian rule, and it was a relatively peaceful period for Fela, who recorded and toured non-stop. Military rule returned in 1983, and in 1984 Fela was sentenced to ten years in prison on charges of currency smuggling. With help from Amnesty International, he was freed in 1985.

As the ’80s ended, Fela recorded blistering attacks against Nigeria’s corrupt military government, as well as broadsides aimed at Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (most abrasively on the album Beasts of No Nation). Never what you would call progressive when it came to relationships with women or patriarchy in general (the fact was that he was sexist in the extreme, which is ironic when you consider that his mother was one of Nigeria’s early feminists), he was coming around to the struggles faced by African women, but only just barely. Stylistically speaking, Fela’s music didn’t change much during this time, and much of what he recorded, while good, was not as blistering as some of the amazing music he made in the ’70s. Still, when a Fela record appeared, it was always worth a listen. He was unusually quiet in the ’90s, which may have had something to do with how ill he was; very little new music appeared, but in as great a series of reissues as the planet has ever seen, the London-based Stern’s Africa label re-released some of his long unavailable records (including The ’69 Los Angeles Sessions), and the seminal works of this remarkable musician were again filling up CD bins. He never broke big in the U.S. market, and it’s hard to imagine him having the same kind of posthumous profile that Marley does, but Fela’s 50-something releases offer up plenty of remarkable music, and a musical legacy that lives on in the person of his talented son Femi. Around the turn of the millennium, Universal began remastering and reissuing a goodly portion of Fela’s many recordings, finally making some of his most important work widely available.