Friday, June 29, 2007

Around the World At 180 Beats Per Minute

A few years ago, when M.I.A. was more commonly known as a military acronym than as the stage name of a Sri Lankan-born singer with a seductive British accent, my friends and I were busy spreading the word via burnt cds and “have you heard?” interjections about Ms. Arulpragasam. Her tracks, which somehow touched on just about every form of music I’d ever loved, remained in heavy rotation on my faux-Pod. Her voice was unique, but what I enjoyed most about her music was what I heard in the background. It wasn’t until I went to her free Central Park concert in the summer of 2005 that I realized who was the culprit for the music behind the lyrics. Diplo, M.I.A.’s Philadelphia-based on-again/off-again love interest, was the one who had produced and remixed the songs on M.I.A’s underground cd entitled Piracy Funds Terrorism, which sparked M.I.A.’s first major release: Arular, an eclectic mix of reggae, funk, electro, bhangra, grime, and hip hop. He had helped to propel her career and make her a prime candidate for collaborations with artists like Missy Elliot and Timbaland and sampling by DJs worldwide.

Diplo was suddenly to underground music as Pier One was to imports.

He had successfully highlighted the talents of a Third Culture Kid, all the while satiating an American audience’s hunger for something “different.” He was welcomed by various ethnic groups and music junkies, mainly for his ability to highlight the new and cool without turning it into a cliché exhibition of the exotic. He invited us all to join in on this form of musical exploration, not simply as spectators, but also as participants, as he combined aspects of distinctive music from the U.S. like dirty south hip hop, to remind us of his roots, with a few notes from the international underground, to remind us that he had a well-used passport. We all had something to contribute as well as something to learn. And while some Americans still may not know of Diplo, it seems that the rest of the world, in particular the oft-ignored “global south,” is paying close attention.

And for good reason.

Though films, music, and tv shows from the U.S. have come to dominate the global market as the end-all, be-all of exportable pop culture, Diplo and his cohorts at Mad Decent, the record label he established in 2006, have worked to reverse this trend. Serving somewhat as a curator of global music and culture, he has used the label to promote his moving museum of sound throughout the club scene. Having already formed relationships with well-known DJs in countries like England, Sweden, and the United States by way of his mix albums and the club and music collective Hollertronix, the man known to his parents and friends as Wesley Pentz set out for countries like Brazil, Angola, Australia, and Israel/Palestine not only to play music, but to learn more about the musical traditions of the population. Fully knowledgeable of the power of subculture, as his success was due in part to his influence therein, Diplo has made a concerted effort to connect with members of the lower class around the world. Ironically, the ingenuity they exhibit despite their economic and social misfortune has become a key element in Diplo’s success, thus begging the question of whether or not his role is one of student turned educator or appropriator cum exploiter.

As the line between those positions are often blurred, especially if the person in question comes from a place of privilege and the people whom he or she observes do not, it’s sometimes difficult to be sure that the original intention of the artist evolves into a correlative outcome. Diplo is a white male from the United States, whereas the communities from whom he gains musical knowledge are impoverished communities of color ranging from working class blacks and Latinos in the United States to, most notably as of late, Brazilian faveladas (people who live in Brazilian slums, known in Portuguese as “favelas”), the focal point of his upcoming documentary Favela on Blast, which highlights the evolution of funk carioca. Funk carioca, known more commonly outside of the Portuguese-speaking world as “baile funk” (though this is slightly inaccurate as “baile funk” is actually the name of the large funk parties where the music is played) is a highly danceable combination of Miami bass, American hip hop and rock samples, and Portuguese lyrics that originated in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro but that is gaining a considerable following in the United States, Europe and the rest of Latin America. In this instance, Diplo could be considered as one of the hundreds of others cashing in on America’s fascination with the lifestyles of the international and impoverished, but the press kit from Favela on Blast seems to indicate quite the opposite:

The intention is not to create a ‘fast-food documentary’ on the characters who form the funk culture, which could be seen on TV and then discarded. On the other hand, this is also not some sort of ‘cinema verité,’ in which the depth is slowly revealed. This project is more interested in creating a spin around a music expression that is unique in its contrasts and mixtures. This film investigates the particular universe of funk carioca, which is a world composed [of] characters who have remarkable talent and also notorious inadequacies. This way, it becomes more possible [for] us to get to know the inner layers of each of them, while the events are revealed on the screen.
Despite the fact that Diplo and the team working on the film (which includes scholars in Brazilian culture), seem to have the best of intentions, how this message will translate to the viewing audiences will be the true test of the function artists like Diplo serve. The documentary, when coupled with Diplo’s music resume, may come across as a trivialization and, arguably, glorification of a life in the slums, overshadowing the poverty and social injustice its inhabitants face. By putting the party styles of the poor “on blast,” Diplo may be positioning his audience as privileged onlookers to only a minute portion of what some experience as a grim quotidian reality.

Culture is currency these days, and, falling right in line with the economic trends of globalization, it is often sown by those who have little, only to be harvested for financial gain by others. With the appropriation and transportation of culture, there is, without a doubt, a portion of its authenticity that gets lost in translation. For example, a large portion of the music Diplo samples and sponsors is in languages he doesn’t even speak. On the Mad Decent blog page, he and Canadian DJ Paul Devro provide synopses of (non-English) international song lyrics that range from slightly imprecise to total shots in the dark, producing narrative results that are about as nerve-wracking for me to read as erroneous subtitles on foreign films. However, the blog contributors (artists of the Mad Decent label, Diplo, and friends) provide their readers with a crash course in musical appreciation that includes local interviews, a brief history of the featured track and/or mix, and a smattering of contemporary political/social information on the side, thus distracting from any momentary blips of translative inaccuracy.

Also, despite his “undergound” status, Diplo is guilty of exhibiting one of mainstream American music’s most infamous flaws: the objectification of women. During a recent Diplo, DJ Blaqstarr, and Bonde do Role concert I attended at Studio B in Brooklyn, I was having an amazing time until, in the middle of Diplo’s DJ set, I looked up and noticed the bouncing T&A of bikini-clad brown women whose faces remained a mystery. With their bodies on big-screen display as my backdrop, I realized that I was one of a handful of brown-skinned women in a sea of white, and immediately felt uncomfortable. As the dancing on the screen became more lewd and the music became more intense, I felt like I was the subject of the hooting and hollering audience around me, as if seeing my face alongside the nearly naked bodies of the women whose skin color matched mine completed the image in their heads. Diplo had, in one moment, served as a facilitator in the popular, and in this instance, predominately white, consumption of some of the world’s most exploited “possessions”: women’s bodies and “foreign” culture.

This thought process didn’t occur immediately. I came to this conclusion after I let all my thoughts stew in my head during the early morning subway ride home. Yet a few hours later, I had let bygones be bygones. Like most music listeners, I found that I had allowed the power of a song outweigh the possible social consequences of the performer’s actions (R. Kelly, anyone?). I also thought about what Diplo, and DJs like him, meant to the music industry as a whole. Wasn’t he simply relaying whatever respective cultures he had featured in their complete form? I may object to some aspects of that “completeness,” but wouldn’t censoring it have run counter to my desire to see the full articulation of a culture despite extraction from its original environment? Would someone who didn’t understand Portuguese, for example, have realized that the song “Injeçao” was about more than just a shot at the doctor’s office if the video hadn’t accompanied it? Could I blame Diplo for playing the messenger?

I’m not really sure.

Though I could write Diplo off as a well-connected party boy on a global club-hopping spree, I hesitate to do so. After all, this is the man who can closely identify with creators of the music he samples, more than many of us may be willing to acknowledge simply because he and his influencers live in worlds that are skin hues and dollar signs apart. In a 2005 article for Philadelphia Weekly, Diplo, then known by friends as Wes Gully for his family’s shrimp boating and bait shop-owning past, explains more of his background:

My grandmother had her first child when she was 13 and had 10 after that . . . I come from a real Southern family. I got cousins that are older than my uncles. My uncle had a mobile home, so he was always going to Mexico, doing gospel retreats, bringing Bibles to Mexicans. I took trips with him to Oklahoma, and visited my aunt in Alabama. I spent my time in those states. That’s how I grew up.
As the son of “the local hospital’s CEO–a Vietnam vet and the only one of his siblings to go to college–and a born-again Christian whose devotion to God is matched only by her devotion to the Republi-can Party,” Diplo’s future life choices made him a textbook example of reactionary theory. He was an avid attendee of graffiti shows and b-boy battles across Florida, the state where he spent most of his teenage years. He read lots of Zora Neale Hurston and Gabriel García Márquez and decided on a college major in film, just about the furthest thing from shrimp boating he could possibly find. He was later greatly inspired while working as a teacher in inner-city schools, where he learned about different forms of rap from his students. In an interview in the newest Elle Magazine, Diplo recounts how he came up with his record label name:

Before I was deejaying, I was an elementary school teacher at an inner-city school in Philly. All the kids would say there was a grade scale of what was good and bad. If something was bad, it was corny. If it was good, it was really decent.
To this day, he continues to gain valuable ideas from multiple sources and widely promotes the artists he meets in his travels, even signing a few to his label, demonstrating his sincere interest in providing opportunity to those who have inspired many facets of his own musical career and subsequent success.

So much like other musical artists, he is a walking contradiction of sorts. Though in his case, I am left questioning the social impact of his actions far more than his intent. In many ways, he is exhibiting behavior that we expect other musicians and pop icons to carry out, but that they often neglect to display (i.e. giving back to the community, helping other musicians find a start, giving credit to their sources of inspiration, be it individuals or cultures). Despite that, however, I worry that his intentions may be lost on those who see his music merely as entertainment. The social commentary inevitably fused into his beats may be interpreted by some as a good marketing scheme or the simple satiation of an audience that feeds off an exploitative relationship with the “third world.” I want to wait a few years before I fully weigh in on this. In the meantime, you be the judge.

Trailer 4 for Favela on Blast (featuring the song “Injeçao” by Deise Tigrona and some fun, “try this at home”-friendly choregraphy)
Video for the Diplo remix of the song “Percão” by Pantera Os Danadinhos
Mad Decent Radio (featuring podcasts of Diplo remix sets and local interviews)
Mad Decent Blog (maintained by Mad Decent artists and Diplo; also contains numerous songs and mixes you can download for free)

Pictured above: Diplo holding up a copy of his newly acquired visa to travel and perform in Angola.

-Wendi Muse


Monday, June 25, 2007

In a Renewed Commitment to Fight Against HIV/AIDS, Congress Rethinks the Mexico City Policy

In May of this year, President Bush urged Congress to commit to providing an additional $30 billion dollars to a 5-year campaign against AIDS in Africa that was initiated in 2003. Now, upon the heels of this proposal, comes an additional measure, just approved by members of the House of Representatives, to rescind a contraception-aid ban that is more than two decades old: The Mexico City Policy.

Known more commonly as the Global Gag Rule by its opponents, the Mexico City Policy is a 1984 initiative of late President Ronald Reagan, named after the city in which the plan was unveiled. The policy forbids the allocation of any funding from the United States government to international NGOs that promote abortion as an option of family planning, meaning that many organizations, including international affiliates of Planned Parenthood, are not eligible for government funding, despite the significant strides they have made in the global movement to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS by way of safe sex education. Many proponents of the policy object to the funneling of taxpayers’ money to causes to which they morally object. However, considering the centrality of the value of life to the religious convictions of far right-wing Christian conservatives, many of whom have significantly contributed to the financial growth of Republican Party since the 1970s, their support of the Mexico City Policy, but limited objections to war, police brutality, or environmental injustice seems empty and hypocritical.

Bearing this in mind, it comes as a relief that lawmakers are somewhat replacing the Religious Right’s message of “life” with their own. The reversal of the policy (which was rescinded by President Bill Clinton, then reinstated by President George W. Bush in 2001) marks a return to focusing on what could be considered a highly utilitarian act. While the opinions and beliefs of conservative religious groups within this country are, no doubt, significant, it seems unfair to base a decision to withhold financial support from organizations who could do (and have done) a great deal of work restoring the quality of life in other parts of the world on the convictions of a small group of people that is, quite frankly, far removed from the tragic reality of the AIDS epidemic. Considering the unspeakable amount of money that is wasted in this country, particularly on initiatives that do little to promote the welfare of the American public, our allies, or the countries to which we have promised aid, there is no question to the priority of reviewing all available options in order to combat what has become a leading cause of death on the African continent. By returning our focus to the millions of lives that can be saved by funding additional highly qualified and experienced organizations to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS, the House of Representatives have catalyzed what many Democrats, women’s rights activists, and healthcare professionals consider America’s re-entry into a state of reality.

President Bush is expected to veto the bill, not only on account of his own personal views on abortion, but also in order to send a message to his religious base that he respects their continued support. Despite the possibility of a veto, however, members of the House remain hopeful. Many optimistically note that at least addressing the issue will re-open the debate surrounding the allocation of U.S. aid to global crises and the initiation of more effective measures to contribute to AIDS prevention and treatment. If the bill passes uninterrupted, however, its success will need to be measured by more than simple legislative “victory.” Considering the cultural divide between many inhabitants in Sub-Saharan African nations and those who contribute the most funding to the AIDS epidemic, several obstacles continue to impede a struggle against time as the virus spreads, including, though not limited to, a reluctance to publicly discuss sex, myths surrounding HIV/AIDS contraction and treatment, and a possible distrust of and/or discomfort with members of the medical community, in particular those who are non-African. There is far more to handling this crisis than sending money here or condoms there. The most successful examples of commitment happen on the ground. Hopefully, whether the bill clears or not, decision-makers in D.C. will not lose site of this reality.

For more information on the “Global Gag Rule,” check out this site: “Access Denied” (

-Wendi Muse


Monday, June 18, 2007

What the Immigration Debate Means for Black America

Immigration is not exactly on the list of priorities for black leaders. While there is more of a focus on day-to-day discrimination and long term work towards equality for African-Americans, discussions revolving around immigration, at least directly, appear to be few and far between. Immigration, however, is an incredibly important issue for U.S.-born blacks, whether they realize it or not. With a bill pending in Congress that is set to facilitate a grand overhauling of U.S. immigration policies, blacks need to put their ears to the wall and pay close attention to the decisions set to unfold.

The subject of immigration in the black American community is a controversial one. Sometimes seen as direct rivals for jobs and other resources, immigrants and immigrants’ rights groups have been met with some opposition from Americans of color. As many have witnessed a priority shift among U.S. government officials from civil rights and class division to immigration reform, a sense of betrayal and a suspicion of racism are inevitable sentiments. When surveying the history of black America, it’s difficult to deny that their concerns have been trumped by a need to deal with whatever contemporary “immigrant problem” surfaces. Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, many freed slaves from the South headed to Yankee territory in search of jobs in the restored Union. However, they quickly learned that the use of cheap immigrant labor (predominately Asian and Latin American on the West Coast and European on the East Coast) replaced a once-free workforce, creating tensions between the black community and the immigrant communities. This competition for jobs combined with the rapid inclusion of “white ethnics” from Western Europe (i.e. Italians and Irish) in the definition of whiteness demonstrated that blacks, despite their previous hard work, were still second-, even third- class citizens in the nation of their birth. There were, of course, instances of the parallel communities working together, but for the most part, years of competition led to frequent race riots and hate crimes that only deepened the chasm between black Americans and immigrant groups.

Leading up to Civil Rights Era, the recent descendants of former slaves understood the gravity of one of America’s most abusive systems. They had grown tired of their position, one that literally relegated them to the bottom of the social barrel. Yet the voices of immigrants and even indigenous groups were included in the struggle for equality in the face of racism. This period provided a powerful example of different communities working together for the sake of a similar goal. Yet now, in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Era, as the nation functions with an economy that could be described brittle at best, the division between immigrant groups and native-born blacks is growing, and for similar reasons of the past. It is incredibly important that black Americans look deeper into this issue for several reasons:

1. The Job Market
The pending bill includes a method for limiting the practice of hiring illegal immigrants for jobs. This aspect of the bill is crucial for the African-American community, particularly because one of the biggest complaints held by the community regarding jobs is strikingly similar to that of whites: that illegal immigrants are taking them all. As native-born blacks make up a considerable percentage of Americans living below the poverty line and who have not completed enough education in order to receive high-paying jobs, jobs that provide on-site training (i.e. construction jobs, factory work) and that do not require a high skill competency function as main sources of income. If employers are discouraged from hiring (and subsequently exploiting) illegal immigrants for such jobs by way of government-based deterrents, there may be more of an opportunity for lower income blacks to have access to jobs from which they presently may feel excluded. If the bill accomplishes this goal, it may provide more opportunities for the working poor to advance by way of longevity on the job and experience because they won’t feel as if their job security is threatened by the possibility of being replaced by those willing to work for less.

2. Equal Rights
Many immigrants rights activists utilize similar methods and even certain language verbatim from the Civil Rights Era. This co-opting of C.R.E. ideas means that the aforementioned groups and their leaders are looking toward black Americans of past movements as activism role models and may be able to rejuvenate a struggle for equality that has, in my opinion, been gradually silenced since Jim Crow Laws were overturned. The immediacy of the immigrants rights movement should be considered a catalyst for black Americans to return to a similar fight and to “wake up” from what could be considered community complacency following the granting of rights on paper. Despite what has been achieved, there is still a long way to go.

3. Education
Another aspect of the bill includes a shift from emphasizing familial connections to ensure an easier immigration process to focusing on job skills and education as keys to entry into the United States. This change in immigration policy may yield results more like the second wave of Asian immigration, in other words, educated, middle to upper class immigrants who would be more eligible for higher level jobs. Considering that this shift could potentially provide competition in a different sector than the one described above, it is important that blacks strive to be on equal footing with future immigrants. This is not to suggest that black Americans are not already working toward such a goal, but the change in the “type” of immigrants that will be more likely to come to the United States may be a positive way to provide additional motivation toward change.

4. Race Relations
Considering the varied perceptions of race in other countries in addition to how those perceptions may change upon exposure to the concept of race in the United States, these differences between ideas on race will be important to pay attention to. There is a possibility that the new wave of immigration will lend itself to an expansion of whiteness, as America witnessed at the turn of the 20th century, however, that trend could also be reversed, especially considering the push towards a preservation of one’s cultural heritage as opposed to assimilation. The racial make-up of the immigrant population also cannot be ignored. Due to legislative limits on immigrants from certain countries (i.e. the Chinese Exclusion Act) during previous periods of American history, the racial demographics of immigrant populations were highly regulated. While similar restrictions remain, though in more subtle ways (i.e. citizens for certain countries are required to pay more for visas to visit the United States than others), the immigrant population seems to be significantly more racially and ethnically diverse than in previous centuries. This could mean that the demands for equality may rely on a different set of issues that may not have been considered by populations of the past.

In short, the issue of immigration affects us all in various ways that may unfortunately be overshadowed by tensions between the black American community and the immigrant community. Despite what the government and the mainstream media at times may like for us to believe, the problems that we face, particularly discrimination based on race and class, are not mutually exclusive. The government has focused most of their immigration-related efforts as of late on the Mexican community, but clearly immigrants come in many colors, including black, and we cannot continue to ignore the more nuanced facets of the immigration debate. The message we should take away is one of coalition-building as opposed to division.

For more information on immigration legislation in the United States, please check out the United States Citizenship and Immigrations Services site.

-Wendi Muse READ MORE

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Why Isn't Obama Telling People What They Want to Hear?

If you look back at popular leaders they seem to have common attributes: charm, charisma, communicative skills and the ability to please most seem to be necessary prerequisites for political success. But, unlike these leaders, Senator Barack Obama is usually characterized as being somber, frank and forthright. He seems to have very little interest in tapering his approach. Many believe this might just cost him the election.

Obama himself has said that many of his speeches and policies are less “…applause lines… and more of an eat your spinach approach.” At times this approach is so frank that he leaves many in his audience uncomfortable. But after four years of dissatisfaction with the current administration, which has led to a rather disenchanted population and increased political lethargy, Obama’s straightforward approach might be exactly what is necessary.

Some of the most popular issues of the 2008 election are the defense budget, the environment and education reform. On all of these issues Obama, while he may not be telling people what they want to hear, still maintains typical popular “American” ideology.

He’s a supporter of increased defense spending as a means of replacing equipment that has been depleted by the war and the rebuilding of the active force. Additionally he proposes expanding TRICARE eligibility and the reduction of TRICARE premiums to improve access to health care.

While making a speech in front of the Detroit Economic Club he did not help his chances of winning endorsement from the big unions as he audaciously stated that any aid Washington gives the auto makers for their soaring health care costs should be tied to improving fuel efficiency. Obama seems to be very stern when it comes to the environment irrespective of audience. Some of his main policies regarding the environment include measures to reduce the greenhouse effect (Climate Stewartship Act, Great Lakes Environmental Restoration Act). His Healthy Community Act and Healthy Places Act are a testament to his experience working in lower income communities and his understanding of their needs.

Obama also is a supporter of the No Child Left Behind Act, which proposes that schools that fail to show progress face cut-offs in public funding, and an absurd $800 increase in federal aid to college students—The HOPE Act—that increases the Pell Grant from $4, 300 to $5,100. Nevertheless Obama agrees that while NCLB “left the money behind” in some aspects it increases accountability and as such should be continued but in a modified version. He proposes grants to schools that show innovation in educational approach and increased pay (10-20%) of high-performing teachers.

Obama is quoted as saying “there’s got to be some element of truth-telling in this years campaign…the problems we face are too tough to try to finesse. If we do that, then we may win an election but we won’t solve the problems.” We can’t help but wonder if America is ready for such honesty.

- Nadja Briscoe READ MORE

Monday, June 11, 2007

An Open Letter to "Buffie the Body"

Dear Buffie Carruth,

I would greatly appreciate it if you did not make the attempt to speak for women like me or to elevate yourself to the status to which you recently alluded in an interview with the New York alternative newspaper The Village Voice. In an article dated May 31, 2007, you were quoted as having said the following:

“I'm the definition of a true black woman. . .
I'm not light-skinned, my mom is not from China, and my dad is not fromYugoslavia. People normally see the light-skinned, small girls with the pretty hair in magazines, and maybe they were just tired of that and wanted to see something different, something real.”
While I respect your attempt to claim beauty as an attribute of dark skinned women, something oft-neglected in media portrayals of women of darker hues, I am baffled by your complete inability to recognize that black womanhood is defined by more than just the color of our skin. As a black woman, you should know quite well that blacks come in many colors. Your assuming that darkness of skin equates to true blackness sounds more like the words of a racist or an essentialist of another group than a member of our own. Our spectrum of tones runs from a pale “almost white” to a black “as dark as night.” How can you ignore the beauty of our diversity? How could you, in one sweeping statement, deny my mother, my grandmother, me of our blackness simply because we are lighter than you? Does your definition also prohibit women who are darker than you from joining you in a claim to true blackness? Are mainstream models like Veronica Webb or Alek Wek not “true black women” in your eyes?

Maybe you think you are the definition of a true black woman because of your body. However, Buffie, your physical features do not an archetype make. There are plenty of skinny sisters out there who would be quick to challenge your claim that your blackness is truer than theirs. While you may fulfill the fantasies of your admirers with merely a forward bend in a video one day or a magazine spread the next, there is much more to black womanhood than “back.” I quickly tire of other people trying to assert authenticity when it is based on stereotypes, and physical ones at that, of what we as black women are expected to be. We own our blackness in various ways, and no one has the authorization to dictate otherwise. We already have enough people trying to speak on behalf of black women via blatant untruths, so we do not need another.

Another aspect of your statement that makes me give pause is your indirect assertion that people of multiracial descent (which, in fact, accounts for most American blacks just like you), whom you seem to target here as your beauty rivals, are not members of your true black woman club. Yet as so many blacks are multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-national, how can you not welcome mixed people into the demographically fluid boundaries of blackness? Considering our shared history and experiences, blacks are quite capable of transcending the limited racial definition in which you choose to corral us. We are still in the process of discovering what "black" even means. How could you bring all this discussion to a halt in order to feed your hunger for attention? "True blackness" goes far beyond vanity.

I recognize that you are not a sociologist or a historian, so why did your opt to speak in a manner as such when addressing the white man who interviewed you? Did you feel it was the perfect time to speak on behalf of all black women, to put down those of us whom you deem as not being “real”? Do your conscious efforts to become what you are today (i.e. weight gain shakes you admit to drinking, hair extensions) in any way constitute a revocation of your claim to realness and your denying us of ours? From where I sit, your statements bear the stench of hypocrisy, just as those of others who have attempted to live in the spotlight under the guise of representing the interests of the black community.

I would like to think that you, as a woman who has experienced a great deal of adversity early on in life, would reconsider vocalizing such a cheap shot at women who, despite the differences they may exhibit in skin color, body type, or racial/ethnic background, may have had to struggle just as hard, if not more so, to find their way along the path to success. So with that said, please do not attempt to speak for black women, particularly if you decide to insult a portion of the population on a whim.


Wendi Muse

P.S. You can also keep your comments on hair types, which are clearly the remnants of brainwashing that you claim to be above, to yourself. We as black women don’t need any more reminders from the media of what about our bodies, including our hair, is “good” or “bad.” Thanks.


Wednesday, June 6, 2007

art and politics

Culture minister David Lammy MP called the cultural sector in England ‘too white’ and, along with Arts Council England, has taken steps to rectify “the problem” helping to create new outlets and resources for artists of color. I’m constantly searching for art work to feature in our issues (by the way, if you’re artistically inclined and interested in contributing please feel free to email us; and in my search have come across various organizations based in England, all fired up about supporting “under represented” art and artists. They’re largely part of initiatives set up by Arts Council England, and have raised almost as many questions as they have hopes.

It’s no mystery to anyone who works in or has worked in the non-profit sector that the field is as much about rubbing shoulders and scratching backs as it is about an organization’s mission. Those who fund organizations have concerns and goals, not unlike advertisers in magazines. Those in charge of non-profits must be as savvy and double minded as ad-sales reps; understanding the needs of the organization and the concerns of those who provide financial support. Many of the council’s programs in England, even if they state their aim to be “color-blind,” are being asked to fill quotas to maintain eligibility for their endowments. The presence of quotas and their affect on goals and practice have caused many worry that as opposed to searching for artists of merit from various backgrounds, organizations will invert that process; making the ability to check all ethnicity boxes their priority, leaving consideration of artistic merit secondary.

Sonya Dyer's report, "Boxed In: Cultural Diversity Policies Constrict Black Artists" was recently published by the Manifesto Club. In it, she addresses many familiar questions about the purpose and effect of diversity initiatives. Dyer maintains that programs (which she refers to as "schemes") like the Arts Council's, Inspire and Decibel programs create dependency, and have negative effects on the very people they set out to assist. The concerns Dyer puts forth are not completely unfamiliar. Many of her arguments are similar to issues we’ve heard raised stateside about similar diversity-driven programs: Namely, Affirmative Action, which is not an entirely different and very large issue.

Programs like Affirmative Action are designed to be temporary. Set up to be a means to an end, not a solution in and of itself. What seems to occur, however, is an eventual slowing of the processes that would end the dependence on the original program. Many argue that Affirmative Action in the US has led to applicants being placed in positions for which they are unqualified and/or under prepared. It is upsetting, however, that there seems to be more exploration into the presence of unqualified minority applicants than research regarding the reasons why there continues to be a divide in the quality of education.

Dyer has been criticized for her stance on the programs being established by Arts Council England. Nonetheless her concerns are not unfounded and should not be dismissed. There should be a constant questioning of the long-term goals of initiatives being established in he name of diversity and equality. It is often easy to see the merits in such programs but it is the responsibility of those who benefit from and participate in them to ensure the progress of their original intentions.

- And, on that note, here are some arts events and organizations for you:

* Scourge showing June 8th and 9th at LIU
by Marc Bamuthi Joseph
with Chinaka Hodge and Dahlak Brathwaite
Get tickets here while they're available

* Soul Arts Movement

- Ashleigh Rae READ MORE

Monday, June 4, 2007

Devaluing Life: Pfizer Charged for Human Testing

"Working for a healthier world" is the trademarked slogan for Pfizer Pharmaceutical Company, but Nigerian authorities, human rights groups, and the global media have provided evidence of Pfizer's actions to the contrary. In May of 2007, criminal charges as well as a $2 billion dollar civil lawsuit against Pfizer were filed on behalf of Kano, Nigeria, the country's largest state, for what many deem as a violation of international law and a complete disregard for human rights.

According to reports assembled by Nigerian government officials and a panel of Nigerian medical professionals, Pfizer conducted drug tests on 200 children in Kano during a meningitis outbreak that raged throughout West Africa in 1996. The children (including infants) were selected at random from the crowds of people stationed at an impromptu quarantine facility reserved for those suffering from the effects of the outbreak. The civil lawsuit indicates specifics of the testing, which included the administering of the experimental Pfizer drug Trovan* to one hundred children, and a "dangerously low dose of a comparison drug made by Hoffman-LaRoche," a Swiss pharmaceutical company, to the remaining half. The researchers involved in the testing had full knowledge that the medication had "life-threatening side-effects" and that it may have been "unfit for human use" at the time it was given to the children. Officials have demonstrated that Pfizer's actions yielded tragic results. All of the children used in the tests experienced life-altering side effects from the drugs. The children were left blind, deaf, paralyzed, brain-damaged, and others even died, leading the international community to question the validity of the response Pfizer issued regarding the pending criminal charges, in which they stated that, "Pfizer's doctors had solid scientific evidence that it would provide a safe and effective treatment against the deadly disease [meningitis]" and that they were engaged in "an effort that provided significant benefit to some of Nigeria's youngest citizens."

Additional allegations enumerated in the lawsuit, including a) that the parents of the children were not provided with accurate information regarding the testing or alternative treatments, b) the parents were not allowed to visit their children at the testing ward, c) that Pfizer never obtained the parents' consent to test on their children, and finally, d) that Pfizer fabricated documentation regarding the study itself have compelled Nigerians from all walks of life to take action. While members of the legal and political sectors seek to hold Pfizer accountable for their actions in order to obtain monetary coverage of the necessary resources to care for the severely disabled surviving children, civilians have called for the prosecution of Pfizer for more personal reasons. The use of impoverished, "Third World," children and/or oppressed peoples as human guinea pigs for the sake of scientific advancement is nothing new. Dangerous (often lethal) testing on humans is commonplace not only during war, but also in times of political and social unrest. In addition, poor communities around the world, including populations in Western nations, are often subjected to environmental injustice by way of laissez-faire government policies regarding the practices of waste management facilities, weapons testing sites, and factories that are placed adjacent to their neighborhoods.

This frequency of victimization leads many of those affected by such violence to harbor suspicion toward the government (in their respective nations as well as foreign), non-government organizations, volunteers, and healthcare professionals. Some parents in Kano, for example, feared that a polio immunization program initiated in Nigeria last year was yet another opportunity for Western drug companies to test on their children and refused to bring them to receive a basic shot. The unethical practices of resource providers such as Pfizer have permanently destroyed any remaining fragment of faith that populations in need may have had in organizations (corporate, governmental, or volunteer) that work to provide assistance for ongoing health issues in developing nations and lower-income communities.

As more details of this case are exposed, the world is reminded, little by little, that the lives of the economically and politically disadvantaged have little value in the eyes of companies that can only see the color green. More must be done to ensure not only that unethical medical practices are prosecuted, but that they do not continue in the future. It starts with us.

To find out more information on this case, click here.

To contact Pfizer, please click here.

*Trovan is presently banned in the E.U. In 1997, it was cleared for adult use in the United States, but after reports that the Pfizer-produced antibiotic had led to liver damage and even death, the FDA allowed restricted use in limited circumstances.

-Wendi Muse