Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig

I absolutely cannot wait to get back into my car and drive from Davenport, IA to East Moline, IL across the frozen tundra that is the Quad Cities. You might think I’ve lost my mind, and perhaps I have a little bit; but let me tell you that the Ali audiobook, narrated by Kevin R Free, and based on author Jonathan Eig’s “definitive biography” is absolutely stunning. Although my experience with audiobooks is relatively limited, I have to say this one makes me want to read all 623 pages of the biography. Free, who also considers himself a storyteller,  narrates the larger-than-life biography of Muhammed Ali (Cassius Clay) with conviction and eloquence, the perfect example of a well-executed audiobook and also a testament to author Eig’s finely-crafted prose.

Normally, it’s easy for me to snooze on audiobooks and lose focus in the middle of a chapter (or worse, a sentence). In fact, listening to audiobooks has proven to be an act of meditation: I’m consciously directing my attention to the narrator and, sometimes painfully attempting to stay focused on the developing story. Too often, like a child who loses interest in a new toy just moments after receiving it, I lose interest in the storyline unless the narrator is particularly emotive, funny, or engaging. But every chapter Free narrates makes me feel like I’m watching an award-winning film. The imagery, writing, and narration are that good. I’ve read a few reviews, and one commenter noted that he felt like he was “ringside” during the fight descriptions because the writing truly is that good.

Cassius Clay, who died in 2016 at the age of 74, endured 200,000 punches throughout his career. I cannot possibly conceive of what that would feel like. He was wildly inspired by Sugar Ray Robinson, a famous boxer well known for being particularly outlandish, flashy, and bold. Ali was single-mindedly focused on becoming the greatest boxer who ever lived; yet he was insanely complex as well as he came into his own in the context of segregation, The Blood of Emmett Till, and the Little Rock Nine. One might simply state that Ali was a fighter in every sense of the word: you can be sure he fought fiercely against racism and injustice that plagued the post-war United States.

I’m nowhere near finished with this book, but I can only imagine it gets better. Check out this article with Author Eig who concludes, after 500 hours of interviews with Ali that “no biography is complete. There’s always more to explore.” Here is what NPR , the Washington Post, and The New York Times had to say. Of course not all the reviews are shining. This particular article claims that Eig did not shed light on the last 30 or so years of Ali’s life and that the book provides “a somewhat perfunctory account of how his story fits into the larger arc of race in America.” As someone who is only about ten chapters in, I appreciated the historical backdrop that Eig establishes early on in the book; although it’s not like a few measly chapters could possibly address the terrible blight of racism on our collective history, so I will wait to see if maybe Eig delves more deeply into issues of race in America. One hopes that a “definitely” biography has earned its heavyweight title, just like the greatest boxer of all time.

A Library of Things

 If you’re anything like me, and you favor a minimalist lifestyle that prioritizes access over ownership, the prospect of a Library of Things may interest you. A Library of Things (LOT) is a most magical and sensible space where libraries, innovation, and sharing economies intersect. When you visit a LOT, you can borrow items you don’t want to commit to purchasing before you can prove the purchase is truly warranted. Not sure if you’re a fan of camping? Don’t sweat it: check out a tent before dropping the cash on new gear. Wondering if you’re likely to develop a serious interest in cake decorating but hesitant to shell out your hard-earned dollars? Check out some cake pans and decorating accessories. Ready to serenade your cat with ukulele music for any occasion? Stop by the LOT and check out a ukulele.

Since libraries are already perfectly structured to lend non-traditional items such as power tools, cake pans, outdoor/adventure gear and equipment, musical instruments and accessories, ties, seeds, and lawn kitchen appliances, it makes perfect sense that innovative libraries have already added many “things” to their circulating collections. At the Hillsboro Public Library in Oregon, for example, patrons can check out a chocolate fountain, popcorn machine, and karaoke machine among many other practical and unique things. At the Shirley M Wright Memorial Library in Wisconsin, patrons can check out bird-watching kits. The Stark County district library partnered with Stark Parks to launch a bicycle sharing program!  As you can see, the possibilities are endless. In California at Sacramento Public Library, patrons can check out yard equipment like hedge-trimmers and a lawnmower, among many other things.  In this article, Director of the Sacramento Public Library, Rivkah Sass describes libraries as “the original sharing economy” and that when developing a LOT they “were looking at the generation coming up that doesn’t necessarily want to own things. They don’t need a pressure cooker to store on a shelf and gather dust.” Can I get an Amen, people?  You don’t have to be a Millennial to appreciate the benefits of a clean, open space that isn’t crowded by a surplus of material possessions you’re likely to use a handful of times before banishing to a lifetime in your kitchen cabinets. Not only does a LOT save you money, but it also saves space, enables access, and encourages discovery and innovation.

Come visit Davenport Public Library to see the “Tech-Know Library” and view a full list of the technologies available for checkout including but not limited to:  graphing calculators, a light therapy lamp, eReaders, a Go Pro, blue-tooth blood pressure monitor, and Snapchat spectacles!

What kinds of items do you think the public library should make available for checkout?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mercy For Animals: One Man’s Quest To Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals

Nathan Runkle, author of Mercy for Animals: One Man’s Quest to Inspire Compassion and Improve the Lives of Farm Animals is just one of those people whose passion is apparent from the moment he opens his mouth. Like his speaking voice, Runkle’s writing style is remarkably elegant and concise. I was shocked that he struggled with reading and writing as a young student because he is a remarkably articulate speaker and writer.

Like the farm and dairy investigation transcripts contained in its pages, this book is not for the faint-of-heart. In creating transparency within the culture of American food production practices, Runkle and his team pull the curtain back, so to speak, to reveal the brutality inherent in factory farming operations. In short, this book is about how Runkle founded Mercy for Animals, a non-profit organization devoted to raising awareness about the lives of sentient farm animals and the system of which they are a part. At the core of this book lies the fundamental belief that the lives of all beings deserve respect and dignity.

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of bullying or oppression will sympathize with the plight of Mercy for Animals. The sickness, disgust, and perhaps solidarity you will feel when you go behind the scenes at a factory farm will empower you to make changes in your lifestyle and better yet, how you relate to and think about animals. In short, this book spotlights Runkle, his twenty-year career, and the other investigators who obtained jobs in hatcheries and slaughterhouses across the United States and abroad in order to spotlight what goes on behind closed doors. Their work created the pressure necessary in order to affect change even at the level of national policy. The exploitation and commodication of animals and workers in a billion-dollar industry forms the bedrock of modern animal agriculture as it’s impossible to pack 60,00-100,000 chickens into a warehouse without grave consequences. Opposition to this industry was established alongside the industry itself, and you can bet Runkle smartly contextualizes his book alongside Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle published in 1908, among others.

As Runkle learned, investigators document every minute of footage with objective language rather than evocative language. For example, when the book discusses what “thumping” means in the pig-farming industry, investigators refrained from using “emotional” language. Instead, undercover investigators might describe “thumping” as a “standard practice” entailing slamming “defective” piglets into the concrete to kill them rather than saying “workers grabbed helpless piglets by their legs and swung them violently into the concrete to crush their skulls” (which is exactly what happens). In other words, investigators are not permitted to purposefully appeal to the emotions of readers and must instead focus on relaying facts and behaviors. But as Runkle knew, there really is no nice, flowery way of making a lifetime of suffering sound like standard operating procedures (even though euphemism and secrecy lies at the heart of the animal agriculture industry). As many consumers know, myself included, the majority of meat and dairy foods we consume are produced not by “humane” family farms peppered with “happy cows” grazing in green pastures but rather from massive mechanized farming operations deliberately located in remote areas out of sight…and out of mind. I’d say slaughtering 12,000 pigs per day constitutes massive AND industrial –the opposite of humane family farms. Although that seemingly innocuous cellophane-wrapped animal product in the grocery store reveals only the end product of factory farming, the animals on our plates endured a lifetime of suffering. Floors caked with excrement, dust, blood, and decaying animal bodies is commonplace–not some grotesque bit of propaganda created by bleeding-heart, tree-hugging hippies to get you to care about animals. The respect we extend to our beloved family companion animals is virtually non-existent in the lives of farm animals. After a delve into the animal liberation literature, try singing “Old MacDonald” in the year 2018 and hearing it as more nursery rhyme then pantomime.

This post isn’t the equivalent of a virtual finger-wagging, either. It has taken me decades to finally come to terms with–to accept–that the lifestyle choices I made every day absolutely matter. If you’re not particularly “sold” on animal rights, you might then take note that Runkle’s book also illuminates how the poor and people of color are particularly vulnerable fodder for the meat, dairy, and egg industries. While Runkle is more immediately concerned with the plight of farm animals and the suffering they endure at human hands, the suffering is not theirs alone as workers labor in harrowing conditions enduring illness and injury alongside the animals. I cannot help but speculate that the implications of killing and processing suffering animals in order to make a living are devastating–physically, emotionally, spiritually. But as gruesome as the reality of farming operations is, Runkle remains optimistic and steadfast in his mission to help people reconnect to the compassion they already have in their hearts for animals.

Runkle’s optimism is key as the work of Mercy for Animals isn’t for nothing: this organization and others like it are disrupting market forces and supply & demand chains that mask injustice and exploitation. Overall, this book was very well-written and executed. A powerful, animal ethics movement is gaining momentum, changing the way we relate to animals, to our environment, and each other. From a local standpoint,  I’m also excited that “plant-based” and vegan lifestyles have arrived and are celebrated more every day here in the Quad Cities, as evidenced by the Quad Cities own first Veg Fest, to be held August 11th, 2018 at Schwiebert Park on the Rock Island riverfront.

 

 

Bright Futures and Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade 10th Anniversary Edition

Nikki Grimes’ Bronx Masquerade is deserving of the 2003 Coretta Scott King award and would be a welcome addition to classroom reading lists because it would foster understanding  and self-expression while encouraging us to celebrate our differences. While it has been a long time since I was in junior and high school, I’m pretty sure school (which is not nearly as beautiful of a word as library) and my teachers conspired to make me hate reading.   At least, that’s what I felt at the time, and still do to this day in many ways.  Not only could I not  identify with my teachers or parents or the books on our assigned reading lists, but I was really winging it when it came to being a teen. And being a teen was brutal at times: I was an incredibly intuitive person with so much to say yet I lacked the language proficiency to fully communicate my emotions and experiences with the people who guided me.

But that’s where art, poetry, and amazing teachers come into play.

When you’re not legally an adult, you rely on the adults in your life–parents and teachers, mainly–to help you through this thing called life. You rely on them to provide you a platform to share your story, and you hope they don’t drop the ball.   And then there are the teachers–the good, the bad, and everything in-between. Hopefully you had the kind of teacher movies like Dead Poet’s Society, Dangerous Minds, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and School of Rock celebrate. In my experience,  “good” teachers facilitate self-directed learning opportunities, foster curiosity, and help students identify and build upon their strengths. That’s a tall order, since much of the work good teachers do is an extension of what good parents do. In Bronx Masquerade, Mr. Ward is one of those teachers who deeply impacts his students in ways they can only begin to understand. He makes his entrance early on when he assigns a lesson about The Harlem Renaissance and other works by popular and lesser known African American authors. The classroom environment begins to take on a life of it’s own: students no longer shame their peers for wanting to read and feed their intellects. Eager to relate hip-hop and rap to the rhymes and rhythm of poetry, students begin writing and sharing original poetry.  The act of writing and the resulting community they find in Mr. Ward’s class profoundly changes them.

In terms of format, Bronx Masquerade  introduces you to a cast of characters, most of whom are Black and Latino with a White and Asian minority, whose lives intersect around poetry and Mr. Ward. Each subsequent chapter introduces you to a new character: Diondra, Amy, Art, Raul, Natalina, Porscha,  Mai Tren, Wesley. Aside from Poetry itself, Tyrone is the central character around which all of the characters revolve.  By the end of the book, Tyrone’s life has changed for the better, and “Open Mic Friday” is at the center of the positive change. As other students begin to read and perform their poetry, sometimes in the style of a poetry slam and often incorporating musical rhythms and beats, Tyrone’s guard begins to come down.And most notably, for the first time, he can envision  a real future for himself and his peers, a future that seemed distant and dismal at the beginning of the book.

By the end of the book, it is clear that through poetry and community, Tyrone has developed a new understanding of himself and his peers. Most remarkably, the opportunity to create and share his writing under the wing of Mr. Ward has literally changed the course of his life that now includes a bright, beautiful future.

The Reason You’re Alive by Matthew Quick

I basically wanted to quit life for two days so I could do nothing other than read The Reason You’re Alive  by Matthew Quick. Apparently Quick wrote this gem in part as an homage to his late uncle, a Vietnam veteran who may have inspired elements of this novel’s “anti-hero”, David Granger.  The novel takes off right from the beginning, and amazingly, Quick sustains the momentum through to the end. I mean, check out this for an opening sentence: “They were giving me the mushroom treatment: keeping me in the dark and feeding me bullshit”. That just has to rank up there with the best opening lines of all time, right? I mean, talk about coming outta’ the box swingin’.

David Granger, main protagonist and narrator of the story is not supposed to be likeable, let alone loveable. But he is just that. After waking up in a hospital after brain-surgery, David rants about the evasive “Clayton Fire Bear” and how doctors are all corrupt scumbags who are either “pill pushers, needle pokers, or people cutters”. He’s right, though, isn’t he? I mean, who hasn’t had a negative experience with a doctor? But of course, he is wrong, too; and for every thieving people-cutter out there you will find a warm, compassionate civil servant who wants to take care of sick people. The truth may lie somewhere in between.

Throughout the course of this book, you’ll be amazed at the things that David says: and believe you me, he has something to say about everyone. And you’ll find that he’s right: why else would you be laughing SO HARD?  But he’s also wrong because, let’s be honest, it’s easy to stereotype and generalize entire groups of people without a second thought. And that’s where things get tricky, which is to say, human. David reserves a certain disdain for his son, Hank, his “mostly ignorant”, “ball-less”, cry-baby liberal son who wouldn’t cut it for a second in the jungles of Vietnam. And just wait until you meet Femke, Hank’s philandering wife, and their sweet daughter, Ella, who David notes is in the unfortunate position of having two complete morons for parents. All of the characters who fade in and out of David’s life are intriguing and memorable and will teach you something new about life.

This book beautifully reminds us that we see other people through the lens of our own experience. I think you’ll find, by the end of the book, when tears unexpectedly start welling in your eyes, that David strived to shield his family from suffering and pain, even at his own expense whenever possible (even when he was essentially shielding them from himself).This book is about loving and understanding your family and your friends on their own terms. This book is about war, madness, art, family, grace, and ultimately redemption. I dare you not to cry when you discover the rich meaning behind the title of the book, how David wrote it for his late wife, Jessica, and their son, Hank, the two most beloved people in his life. And then I dare you not to cry when it dawns on you that David was shielding you, too, as he had his family, from the heartache of having to let him go after finding out he was  good as gold all along.

 

 

 

The Most Dangerous Place On Earth

As someone who devours non-fiction, biography, and memoir, I was surprised to have finished this work of fiction in just shy of two days. To be fair, the book is a quick read (even for self-professed slower readers such as myself).  The Most Dangerous Place on Earth is the debut novel of Lindsey Lee Johnson with impeccable prose and superb character development.  I could even see the book being turned into a film. In a nutshell, the book is broken into  time periods: Eighth Grade, Junior Year, and Senior Year. Within those general time periods, each chapter is further subdivided with titles such as: The Note, The Lovers, The Striver, The Artist,  The Dime, The Ride, The Dancer, The Pretty Boy, and The Sleeping Lady.  Each chapter spotlights each of the core characters whose lives revolve around a tragic incident involving Tristan Bloch, an awkward but brave outcast with an overbearing mother. Over the course of four years, we follow each protagonist as s/he navigates the tough terrain of junior high and high school, further complicated  by  parents, teachers, and digital culture. In many cases, each of these young people–although living in million-dollar beach homes–is forced to establish his or her individuality and navigate adolescence while also living in the shadows of abuse, neglect, and addiction at the hands of the grown ups who are supposed to protect and guide them. As is the case with many young people, these characters can sense when things are awry at home and school; but they lack the agency to be able to articulate those experiences, sometimes in a healthy way. Always looming in this novel is what lies unspoken–what is between the lines.

At the center of this story is Molly Nicholl, a newbie teacher and transplant from central California who is hired on in the English Department at Valley High in the affluent city of Mill Valley in Northern California, roughly a 6-hour drive from Los Angeles. As Molly begins to feel out the culture at Valley High, she finds herself at odds with the other seasoned faculty who are  burnt-out on their jobs, presumably after many years teaching. As Molly reconfigures her classroom into two concentric circles (note, also, the circular themes throughout the novel) so as not to carry on her predecessor’s tradition of an authoritarian, old-school classroom, she endures pushback from teachers who believe she is crossing the line with regard to her relationship with the students. After a car crash and the exploitation of a female student on social media, Molly is questioned about the inappropriate nature of her commenting on her student’s social media threads–even though her comments stemmed from genuine concern about the well-being of her students . Early on in the book, Molly is eager to dig deeper into the lives of her students–to see them not merely as students but also as human beings who have complex lives and much promise.  Molly once asks “Isn’t it our job as teachers to help our students?” She was quickly put in her place when her co-worker says: “No, your job is to teach.” But what does it mean “to teach”? What does teaching–truly teaching–entail?

I think my teacher and parent friends would enjoy this book, especially because it sheds light on a number of questions–namely: What is the role of the teacher? How can teachers truly effect change and the lives of their students if they are forced to keep students at arm’s length? Can teachers truly be effective if they relate to their students on only the most basic, superficial levels? Is it the role of teachers to dig beneath the surface to enable students to identify and pursue their interests? Are teachers supposed to protect and help their students? How can parents and teachers be better aligned for the benefit of the student?  Must there always be such a deep and wide chasm between young people and adults–one in which “adultness” itself is often dishonest, distrustful, and cynical? I have to say that by the end of the book–and yes, it’s just the idealist in me–I feel like Molly compromised too many of her ideals in an effort to play it safe. I mean, on one hand, I can certainly see why she would opt to play it safe, given the events leading up to her transition from newbie mover-and-shaker to cautious, jaded professional.  In one particular scene, Molly receives an essay from Callista who has accepted and processed, through the therapeutic act of writing, her role in the tragedy of Tristan Bloch. This was the moment that Molly had been waiting for the past three years: to play an encouraging and inspiring role in helping  students reconcile their places in the world and hopefully help them tap into their potential. I mean, here was Callista sharing a deeply painful experience with her teacher and in a sense, looking for encouragement and validation. But Molly, perhaps afraid to assume a role other than “superior” or “teacher” misses the opportunity entirely. Instead, she writes Callista a typical response that an English teacher–not a mentor–would write. However, the implications of Callista’s writing–how she knew the fine details of the path Tristan took to the bridge–were curious, troubling. Again, the power of the unspoken demands attention.

This books asks far more questions than it answers; so if you’re ok with ambiguity, you’ll love this book. I’m still wondering about these characters–what becomes of them, if they ever get to realize their true potential. Reading this book also forced me to look back on my own experiences in junior high and high school, which, like most young people, was a mixed bag of good, bad, and ugly. When I was young, I did not have vast social networks at my fingertips and cyber bullying wasn’t yet a thing. So much happens to young people online–entire worlds exist out of the reach of unwitting adults. While I tended to despise the parental and authoritarian figures in this book, I was nonetheless sickened by how these students treated each other. But unfortunately, I also got the sense that Emma, Damon, Callista, Ryan, Elisabeth, Nick, and others were just on their own, abandoned even. I certainly found fault with the parents: what is the role of the parent in providing guidance and support to their children? How can effective parenting provide a more equitable, just world? In essence, how can effective parenting be the anti-thesis to bullying, suicide, sexism, and abuse? How should parents be meaningfully involved in the lives of their children without being overbearing and suffocating? These are just some of many, many questions I have after finishing this fantastic debut by Lindsey Lee Johnson, which has drawn some comparisons to Thirteen Reasons Why.

The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin

Written by Julia Finley Mosca and illustrated by Daniel Rieley, The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin, is a children’s biography told in rhyme about the inimitable Temple Grandin. If you’re not familiar with Temple, she has single-handedly created more awareness around animal welfare (specifically the lives of farm animals) than just about any other person. She is practically a household name and tours the country giving talks and presentations. There’s even a movie about her starring Claire Danes! Grandin has long advocated  for “humane slaughter”, a phrase animal liberation advocates would argue is contradictory; but she nonetheless prescribes standards for facilities design and proper restraint and stunning techniques  that are intended to cause the least amount of pain and suffering in the animals being slaughtered. You can check out Temple’s website to learn more about the extensive work she has done in the field.

In The Girl Who Thought In Pictures: The Story of Dr. Temple Grandin, author Mosca discusses Grandin’s childhood as a person with autism and her deep connection with animals. Temple did not speak until age three or after, and, apparently, doctors initially told Temple’s mother they suspected she had “no brain activity”. Soon after being kicked out of school, Temple moves out west with her aunt, an owner of a ranch, and it isn’t long before Temple serendipitously embarks on her lifelong journey as an animal scientist and public speaker. She has worked tirelessly to create change in the practice of animal agriculture that is in compliance with the highest ethical standards after many years of communing with and studying the behavior of animals. Additionally, her persistence helps to create and foster an understanding of people who fall along the autism spectrum and to demonstrate that being autistic should not hold you back from a life of happiness and success.

The takeaways in this book are many: 

  • Humans are dismissive of what we don’t understand
  • We can learn to listen to others who speak a language that is different than our own
  • We nonetheless still have a myopic and narrow view of human intelligence and cognitive ability
  • Animals feel emotion and pain
  • We should not be defined by others but instead strive to live an authentic life
  • We can and should advocate for those whose voices are not heard
  • We should leave things better than how we found them

And last but definitely not least: persist, persist, persist! There are certainly many, many more morals of the story, but you’ll have to read the book to see for yourself. Personally, I was inspired while reading this picture book and think children would also find this an uplifting story. Plus, children are often more sensitive and receptive to the plight of animals than many adults–so we have much to learn from them!

Kesha’s Kaleidoscopic Album”Rainbow” is a Work of Catharsis and Transformation

At first, Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)” was my favorite song on the album. In a waltz with the one and only Dolly Parton, Kesha’s resonant vocals are set against a meandering pedal steel guitar which is decidedly “country”; yet the underlying  near heavy-metal downpicking and tambourine on the chorus elevates the tune to “not your grandmother’s”  country shuffle. Kesha and Parton’s vocals complement each other beautifully as a faint doo-wop piano adds to the nostalgia of unparalleled love. Lyrically, love is likened to a flame, of course; but embers, fires, and candles are also invoked to describe the type of love about which singer-songwriter Patricia Rose Sebert and Hugh Moffatt wrote in 1978. “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You”) is the only cover song on the album: Kesha does her own writing, which is another reason to love this deeply-personal album.

As it turns out, “Spaceship”, track number 14, is my absolute favorite song on the album.  Kesha’s voice is paired with a banjo (and also a mandolin?) on the verses as she sings:  “I always said when I’m gone, when I’m dead / Don’t lay me down with the dirt on my head / You won’t need a shovel, you don’t need a cold headstone / You don’t need to cry, I’m gon’ be going home.” Due to the minimalism of the song, I am able to hear the beautiful timbre in her voice which is not buried (but instead enhanced) by the stripped-down instrumentation. “Spaceship” is essentially a dirge about how the narrator wants to be treated at the time the she departs the earth. I can think of no creative act on par with the self-penned elegy that is perhaps the penultimate act of staking one’s little claim on this spinning earth. The elegy song is basically akin to a living will for artists and one of the greatest works they can write.  The narrator of the song laments her life on Earth and states that she’s from another galaxy and will one day return home. Note the ethereal backing vocals on the chorus and how they creates a ghostly ambience that is not quite of this world. In my lil humble opinion, “Spaceship” is the best song on the album, because in a really beautiful, inventive way the artist confronts her mortality, contemplates her place in the world, and explores her interest in what lies beyond. The existential lyrics contemplating one’s mortality on “Spaceship”  immediately liken the mundane verse in “Tik Tok” to mere fodder for some otherworldy sacred cow.

“Woman” is a righteous, feisty song and gives voice to female empowerment and staking your ground,  dominant themes of Rainbow.  A saxophone full of attitude paves the way for the famed Dap-Kings horn section (who backed the inimitable, late Sharon Jones). Kesha sings: “I buy my own things/ I pay my own bills / These diamond rings / My automobiles /  Everything I got I bought it / Boys can’t buy my love/ Buy my love, yeah / I do what I want / Say what you say / I work real hard everyday / I’m a motherfucking woman, baby alright.” The song is part cabaret, part pop, and all sass, and Kesha sprinkles in some expletives for good measure (and I’m not mad at her for it). In fact, I love her for it because artistic integrity is not sanitized and flawless. Kesha is the antithesis to the Insta-world where all things appear perfect but are far from it: she is the raw and the real. In other words, beauty lies in imperfection. Sometimes, what is most real is disheveled and rough-around-the-edges. Check out “Boots”, which is a little bit like the “answer” to “Woman” and “Hunt You Down”, a pantomimic ballad about murdering a lover who has done you horribly wrong. Either way, this kaleidoscopic genre-bending album showcases Kesha’s dynamic vocal ability and range.

Forgiveness, prayer, and redemption from suffering (at the hands of loved ones) are also major themes of Rainbow. You’ve likely heard “Praying” at this point, which was released with a stunning,  video depicting a narrator who is letting go of the pain of all of those who have wronged her. If you haven’t seen her late night television performance of “Praying”, it is an awe-inspiring performance. The use of repetition andguttural belting of the lyrics “praying” and “changing” make it the centerpiece of the album, no doubt. But “Rainbow”the song after which the album has been named–has quickly become another of my absolute favorites. Kesha wrote “Rainbow” when she was in rehab  for an eating disorder, so this song both embodies and symbolizes healing, growth, and survival.  “Rainbow”–with its swelling string arrangements–evoke the magic of a Disney scene in which the lead character performs her triumphant soliloquy in a sunlit forest. Kesha sings: “I used to live in the darkness / dress in black / act so heartless / but now I see that colors are everything.” Thematically, colors  are a key vehicle for communicating personal transformation, and if you’ve seen the album artwork, you know what I mean. “Rainbow” signifies a new beginning or a re-birth while “Spaceship”–a song contemplating mortality–is the perfect final cut.

And that leaves “Bastards” which was described in the Rolling Stone review as a “ballad ripe for a campfire singalong”. And I couldn’t agree more. In fact, “Bastards” echos the sentiment my father still eschews to his kids today. This pep-talk of a title track is Kesha’s inner dialogue turned outward: ” Don’t let the bastards get you down, oh no / Don’t let the assholes wear you out /Don’t let the mean girls take the crown / Don’t let the scumbags screw you ’round / Don’t let the bastards take you down.” And that’s pretty solid advice.

I haven’t heard much of Kesha’s work aside from her 2010 album, Animal; but after listening to Rainbow, I’d count myself among the ranks of her adoring fans. After just a few spins of the album, there are some standout tracks that I would say are “great”, due either to the result of her collaborations with other (great) artists, her emotive shapeshifting vocals, or how content/lyrics, vocals, instrumentation, and overall production quality culminate in beautifully-crafted songs. As it turns out, the punchy, poppy dance tunes are my least   favorite songs but are catchy in their own right.  The songs I am drawn to and that have the most substance, in terms of lyrical content, also happen to be the most minimally arranged.

In general, Kesha really shines when her emotive voice gets to take center stage without competing with a spastic instrumental backdrop (“Boogie Feet” comes to mind). It’s easy to pass judgement on an artist like Kesha who has achieved the all-too-evasive super-stardom; but check out some of her live performances from “Rainbow” and if you’re like me, you’ll be moved by how she has completely lived the experiences about which she sings. “Spaceship”, “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle To You)”, “Rainbow”, “Bastards”, and “Praying” are beautiful and honest songs that I will return to again and again. If you’re the least bit privy to the legal battles and alleged abuse she suffered at the hands of her former producer, “Dr. Luke”, it’s not difficult to see that Rainbow  is a work of catharsis and metamorphosis. It’s fantastic to witness her return to her country roots because, yes, she isn’t merely a manufactured pop-star: not only does she write her own songs, but she can really sing. Check her out!

 

Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN.

When fans say Kendrick Lamar is the Tupac of our time, it’s an understatement that his music has already made a profound socio-political and aesthetic impact. Let’s not forgot that “Alright,” a song from his 2015 masterpiece album To Pimp A Butterfly (TPAB) became a rallying cry for unity within the Black Lives Matter Movement and acknowledges the epidemic of police shootings that disproportionately targets  Black Americans.   TPAB fuses multiple-genres and voices while the finely-crafted DAMN, by contrast, is am exercise in minimalism. Repetition and reverse instrumentation perfectly reinforce the cyclical  format of the album and the album’s themes after which the songs are named (BLOOD, DNA, FEAR, LOVE, GOD, HUMBLE, LOYALTY, etc).  Where some artists overcomplicate and muddy their waters, Lamar expertly tells stories that perfectly accentuate the cerebral/mundane & sacred/profane dichotomies present in his lyricism. And he often does so with painful self-awareness and contradiction (good & evil, dark and light). Check out some of the reviews of Lamar’s 2017 masterpiece, easily my favorite album of 2017.

The process of listening to DAMN.  has been both discursive and linear, which is to say I’ve listened from beginning to end, end to beginning, and most points in between . The rewards of mindful listening –keener insights into social and cultural references, for example–inspired me to look further into the literary references in Lamar’s work. As an album, DAMN. is particularly circular as well, which is to say the album doesn’t have a definitive beginning or end.   DAMN. is a departure from the ventriloquism of TPAB,  but it nonetheless features what could be construed as Lamar’s conscious and subconscious “voices”. For example, “FEAR”–easily one of my top 3 favorite tracks on the album– is an examination of life told from a few different standpoints. Charles Edward Sydney Isom Jr’s voice can be heard early on in the song asking: “Why God, why God do I gotta suffer? / Pain in my heart carry burdens full of struggle/ Why God, why God do I gotta bleed? / Every stone thrown at you restin’ at my feet.” One fan noted that this particular stanza could function to represent Lamar’s subconscious inner dialogue. But there is a second movement in the tune in which Lamar shape-shifts into the persona of (his) mother: “I beat yo’ ass, keep talkin’ back/I beat yo’ ass, who bought you that?/You stole it, I beat yo’ ass if you say that game is broken/I beat yo’ ass if you jump on my couch/I beat yo’ ass if you walk in this house with tears in your eyes”. This movement in the song continues for 23 more stanzas before transitioning into another “movement” wherein Lamar lays bare his anxieties about how he might die: “I’ll prolly die from one of these bats and blue badges / Body slammed on black and white paint, my bones snappin’ /Or maybe die from panic or die from bein’ too lax / Or die from waitin’ on it, die ’cause I’m movin’ too fast.”

I’m astounded by how Lamar crafts songs that build great intensity and ferocity through the sheer volume of lyrical stanzas alone: strip away all of the layered instrumentation and the lyricism–poetry–would stand independently of its own accord. “FEEL” is another standout song on this album because Lamar utilizes a “stream-of-consciousness” approach set against a dreamy, synth-n-bass backdrop. Lamar is righteously vulnerable in this song and lays bare his anxieties, summons his heroes, and appears to turn his anger inward for a moment. On a really simple level, “FEEL” is a song about anxieties: “Look, I feel like I can’t breathe
Look, I feel like I can’t sleep/Look, I feel heartless, often off this/Feelin’ of fallin’, of fallin’ apart with/Darkest hours, lost it/Fillin’ the void of bein’ employed with ballin’/Streets is talkin’, fill in the blanks with coffins/Fill up the banks with dollars/Fill up the graves with fathers/Fill up the babies with bullshit/Internet blogs and pulpit, fill ’em with gossip/I feel like this gotta be the feelin’ what ‘Pac was
The feelin’ of an apocalypse happenin’…I feel like the whole world want me to pray for ’em / But who the fuck prayin’ for me?”  Something that is conceptually remarkable about DAMN. is that it is an honest exploration of what it means to be human. It is considerably difficult for an artist to not only tap into but to give voice to the wide spectrum of emotion without censoring oneself.  Lamar goes into the depths of his soul in this album, which is an act of bravery unto itself. When asked what he would do differently the second time around?: “I’d go deeper”,  he tells Rick Rueben in a fantastic interview.

“DNA” is my favorite song on the album because of it’s unapologetic boldness in which Lamar attacks the microphone and takes no prisoners. For the reason that hip -hop allows the artist to re-fashion him or herself into the larger-than-life master of her own destiny, I am perpetually drawn back into its magic again and again. Unlike other musical genres, the best hip-hop acts as a springboard not only for reflection but for personal (and thus social) revolution and transformation not lost on Lamar: “I got power, poison, pain and joy inside my DNA/ I got hustle though, ambition, flow, inside my DNA.”  If you watch the official music video for “DNA”, you’ll see an incredible performance between Don Cheadle and Lamar that features Lamar administering a lie detector test to Cheadle. A sample of a Fox news brief features two news pundits mocking Lamar’s massive hit song “Alright” that calls out police brutality. I personally love how Lamar takes these two news pundits to task and challenges their snap-judgements and assumptions.  Like Nina Simone said, it is an artist’s job to “reflect the times.” Lamar does just that.

DAMN. becomes more revolutionary the more you listen and allow yourself to be awash in the poetry, politics, and existential philosophy. Having listened to DAMN. at least twenty-five times, I am amazed by Lamar’s “fast and furious” lyricism. A Pitchfork reviewer who gave the album a heavy-weight champion score of 9.2 opines that  “Lamar’s recitation is so effortless you wonder where he breathes, or if he does at all.”     Indeed, I also wondered when, exactly, he would find the space to take a breath during the recitation of his lyrics. If you haven’t heard this album yet, just listen with an open mind, which is to say with a neuroplastic mind, since we now know that the brain is not fixed but rather capable of change and charting new territory.

 

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes On Race & Resegregation

We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation strikes a beautiful balance between scholarly and popular writing styles while still retaining the heartening qualities that embody the spirit of activism. Author Jeff Chang interrogates the assumptions surrounding concepts like “political correctness”, “color blindness”, “diversity”, “affirmative action”, and “privilege”, concepts that are oversimplified in spite of their nuance, rich history and deep complexity.

In We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes On Race and Resegregation  , Chang explores the historical and cultural backdrop for the events leading up to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in addition to the structures of racism and the impact on communities and people of color. “Racism is not merely about chauvinism, prejudice, or bigotry,” he says. In quoting Ruth Gilmore, he continues that racism is “about the ways different groups are ‘vulnerable to premature death,’ whether at the hands of the state or the structures that kill” (3). When we begin to examine how city zoning, for example, or access to affordable health care, schools, and housing hinder or help any given group of people, we begin to see things a little differently. It is deeply disturbing that “the death rate of Blacks is over 50 percent higher than that of whites, and higher that that of all other major ethnic groups, except for some American Indian coherts” (4).

Vehement protests in response to police shootings of innocent black people in the United States have dominated the press for good reason.  And everyone has an opinion, it seems. When debate rages on, either on the national political stage or social media threads, some complain about the implied burden of having to be “politically correct”, as though precision and care to detail are somehow a bad practice to uphold. Audre Lorde says it better: ‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’  Chang unpacks the backlash against the phrase “politically correct” and explains concisely:

Before the 1980s, it was mostly Marxists who used the term “politically correct” to mock other Marxists. Since then, charging someone else with political correctness has become the first line of defense for racists, one of the best ways to shut down any discussion about inequity. That silencing isolates the most marginalized communities, and demobilizes white communities. Resegregation grows not from white ignorance, but from white refusal and denial. And so a half century after the peak of the civil rights movement, the nation has again moved into crisis (7).

In some social circles, online or in-person, it’s uncool and bothersome to discuss politics, a sad state of rampant anti-intellectualism and apathy. In my recent personal experience on social media, often outside of my immediate and insular “friends” list,  people don’t like to be inconvenienced with questions of inequity and injustice. “Can we just get back to posting pictures of our dinners?” has been a resounding mantra with regard to recent discussions of the NFL & Colin Kaepernick’s protesting of police brutality and racial inequity. But Kaepernick is tapping into mass anxiety about an issue that is all but isolated and his immediate and lasting consequences on real living, breathing human beings. If we are not to keep repeating mistakes and atrocities of the past, it is high time to Listen. Activists and scholars like Jeff Chang are leveraging their voices in order to shed light on some of the most insidious corners of humanity. And it is time not to become defensive and deny marginalized people their experiences with bigotry but instead to say: “Tell me your story and I will listen, even if my own experience is different.” We should seek to understand the experiences of our fellow citizens–not to try and shut them up or shame them when they take a knee or speak out on an social evils of epidemic proportions.   You might be surprised to discover that the continuity of a long storied history of racial inequity is explained in part by city zoning, urban sprawl, the bull-dozing of housing projects, and the history of policing just to list a few factors (82). Chang is trying to foster understanding with his book and create another testament to the realities faced by marginalized people. Considering how dense Chang’s book is, it’s a fairly quick read, too. It is of critical importance to note how 2017 is a standout year because Americans are more concerned about issues of race now than they have been since the early 1990s!:

“Polls show that more Americans are concerned about race relations now than at any time since 1992, the year of the Los Angeles riots. The previous peak had come in 1965–the year of the Voting Rights Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, the apex of the civil rights movement, the year of the last national consensus for racial justice.”

We have entered into another vicious cycle that Chang describes compassionately and poignantly:

Race makes itself known in crisis, in the singular event that captures a larger pattern of abuse and pain. We react to crisis with a flurry of words and, sometimes, actions. In turn, the reaction sparks its own backlash of outrage, justification, and denial. The cycle turns next toward exhaustion, complacency, and paralysis. And before long, we find ourselves back in crisis. . .One need not be a pessimist to see the bad loop of history we are caught within–crisis, reaction, backlash, complacency, crisis. There are fires. There are calls for action. There is then a bullying politics of fear. If most Americans recoil from the kind of excessive, gleeful, cynical bigotry someone like the billionaire Donald Trump proffers, they are yet demobilized to the point of denial (‘there is no problem’) or justification (‘there is a problem but I can’t solve it’). And then we find ourselves in another crisis.”

The takeaway?:

1.) This is an important book.

2.) Please read it and share it with someone else.

3.) Jeff Chang is my hero.