Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mavis Staples Live: Hope at the Hideout (ANTI-Records)

It was definitely a homecoming for gospel/soul legend Mavis Staples on her latest effort, Mavis Staples Live: Hope at the Hideout. This intimate, yet electrifying performance was recorded this past summer in Chicago. Staples not only revisited her hometown, but on Live: Hope at the Hideout she also rediscovered the musical foundation of our country. As a member of The Staples Singers, known for classics like “I’ll Take You There” and “Respect Yourself,” she along with her siblings and her father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, found their musical roots in the heart of The Civil Rights Movement.

From hymns and spirituals to protest songs, The Staples Singers became an important musical force during a turbulent time in America. And in today’s hard times, the songs on Live: Hope at the Hideout remain relevant. The show was kicked off with a rousing cover of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth.” For Staples, these spirituals and protest songs were also deeply personal. On “Down in Mississippi,” she recalls how she witnessed the “For Coloreds Only” signs taken down thanks to the efforts of Dr. King, while “We Shall Not Be Moved” recounts when she along with fellow protestors refused to leave after being denied service at a restaurant in the South. The quality of Staples’ low singing voice is gravel-tinged and heavily steeped in the gospel tradition where at times, you feel as though you’re a parishioner at church. Her three-piece band, especially Rick Holmstrom’s melodious guitar, adds the right balance of traditional rhythm and blues to Staples’ stirring gospel sound. Live: Hope at the Hideout is a reminder of how strength and courage will once again prevail just as it has for civil rights champions like Mavis Staples.

Shannon J. Effinger

Raphael Saadiq - The Way I See It (Columbia Records)

The hot sound in music today is “1960s Motown”…? Sounds almost like an oxymoron. But turn on the radio and you hear it clearly in the music of today’s young artists. And you’ll also hear it on Raphael Saadiq’s fourth solo effort The Way I See It. The former member of the R&B groups Tony! Toni! Toné! and Lucy Pearl is definitely not a stranger to that sound. Anyone who is a fan of this singer/songwriter will give you a long list of influences heard in his body of work: Curtis Mayfield, The Temptations, etc. And to have the opportunity to pay homage to these legends on a single album: priceless. On “Love That Girl” and “Sure Hope You Mean It,” it is clear that Saadiq has great love and respect for the Motown sound. With its lo-fi quality, horn sections, tambourines, and rhythmic electric bass, The Way I See It gives you the feeling that you are listening to an old 45 rather than a CD (or mp3 file). Even Saadiq’s songwriting on this album is a tribute to another key aspect of Motown’s legacy, “The KISS Principle” (Keep It Short & Simple), especially since most of the songs are no longer than four minutes. On “Big Easy (featuring The Infamous Young Spodie & The Rebirth Brass Band),” Saadiq explores the harsh reality of Hurricane Katrina, while “Just One Kiss (featuring Joss Stone)” is a wonderfully modern tribute to the classic Motown duo Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. Raphael Saadiq has produced for many different artists (including Joss Stone and D’Angelo) and for this eclectic artist to forgo variety and focus on one signature sound, The Way I See It will be appreciated by young and old fans alike.

Shannon J. Effinger

I WAS THERE . . . George Clinton & the P-Funk All Stars @ B.B. King 10.23.08

Funk Legend & Music Icon George Clinton

George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars
B.B. King Blues Club & Grill
October 23, 2008
All photos by Shannon Effinger

After two short, forgettable opening acts and a nearly 40 minute wait, The P-Funk All Stars finally took the stage at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill last Thursday. Guitarist Gary “Starchild” Shider, an original member of Parliament-Funkadelic, began by shouting “Vote, it ain’t illegal yet.” The energy of the music shocked many people. It was a little unexpected to hear that vitality from these veteran musicians. But the theme that night was the unexpected. Shider quickly shook off his jacket and revealed his normal attire—practically nothing. Yes, this P-Funk legend is also affectionately known as “Diaper Man” and he lived up to the name once again.

George “Dr. Funkenstein” Clinton, the man we were all waiting to see, finally walked out on stage. He brought an already raucous crowd to its highest point as he playfully gestured to them. Although he was jovial, Clinton was there for business. With a slight turn of his hand, the musicians immediately began with “Cosmic Slop.” The P-Funk All Stars had the musical freedom to explore with trills and long solos, but Clinton made sure that chord structure and syncopation was kept in the music. He was an effortless conductor of these “funkateers” that night.

Singer Belita Woods brought down the excitement well with “The Girl is Bad.” She was pure rhythm and blues. Woods wore a beautiful floral dress—very surprising compared to what Shider was wearing that night. The quality of her voice was light yet gravel tinged and it brought an added seductiveness to the lyrics.

The funk continued with “Atomic Dog.” The rhythm of the guitar section, driven mainly by Shider, and Clinton’s musical direction was a lesson in music theory. These two “atomic dogs,” well into their sixties, didn’t have to run far to “chase the cats” as a gaggle of women dancers rushed the stage.

After 2 ½ hours, their show was cut short because of a later performance scheduled and the crowd continued to shout “We Want The Funk” for a good ten minutes. George Clinton and the P-Funk All Stars proved that night that music is and will always be the great unifier.

Shannon J. Effinger

More Pics

P-Funk legend Garry "Starchild" Shider performing "Atomic Dog"

Belita Woods performs "The Girl is Bad."

Friday, October 3, 2008

The Interview: Esperanza Spalding

Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Short and Sweet NYC

Portland-bred jazz bassist, composer, and vocalist Esperanza Spalding already holds many achievements under her belt. At 20, she became the youngest faculty member ever in her alma mater’s history, the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. She has worked with numerous jazz legends including Herbie Hancock, Joe Lovano, and Patti Austin. Now at 23, Spalding is promoting her sophomore effort Esperanza (Heads Up, 2008) and touring all over the globe. I had a moment to chat with Esperanza Spalding about her musical influences, what she’s listening to right now, and her role in today’s jazz scene.

Are you still teaching at Berklee College of Music? Will you continue to teach and perform?

I haven't been able to teach regularly for about a year. Right now, I am speaking with the school, trying to figure out a way to stay involved with them and my students, but manage my touring schedule as well. Teaching is very important to me, so I will do everything I can to continue it along with my performance career.

I caught your recent performance on The Late Show with David Letterman. I missed you on Jimmy Kimmel Live! during that same week. And now you’re on the cover of JazzTimes, which has you featured as one of the “new visionaries” of jazz. How are you handling all of your success and exposure? Who or what keeps you grounded?

Well, I never feel like I need anything to keep me grounded per se. I try not to pay too much attention to press because it is sort of a separate entity from the music. Also, almost every time I turn around I hear someone who deserves all of this hype much more than me! My main objective in the face of all this attention and expectation is to make sure I am upholding my end of the deal, i.e., delivering strong, exciting, and well-crafted music.

Why did you decide to sing as well as play the bass?

It developed kind of in its own way I guess. At a certain point in the beginning of my life as a bassist, I auditioned for a pop band to play bass. They asked me if I could sing background [vocals], and by the end of my stint with that band, I was singing lead. And from there, I realized that I could use it as a texture in the music, and as a way to connect with audiences.

What was the music scene like growing up in Portland, Oregon? How did you get inspired there?

Portland is an incredibly diverse place musically. So from a young age I was exposed to many different sources of music and art. As a young child I was involved in different music programs, primarily on violin but also for a little while on clarinet and oboe, and the older students and teachers were a constant source of inspiration. Once I started playing bass, it opened up a whole new world of local jam sessions, listening parties, concerts, and playing opportunities that kept me inspired.

I read that you weren't happy in high school until you picked up the double bass and started to improvise. What made you fall in love with the bass?

I wasn't happy with high school in general! And, actually, I discovered the bass there right before I left. School never particularly resonated well with me; I think the best thing I got from it by far was discovering the bass. In the beginning, the first few moments touching the instrument, it was purely the sound that caught my ear and attention. From then [on], I really grew to love the instrument conceptually, and my career as a bassist continued growing from those first few weeks jamming with teachers and friends.

Most women in jazz are either legendary pianists (Mary Lou Williams, Alice Coltrane) or great vocalists (Billie, Ella, Sarah). With giants like Ron Carter and Charles Mingus, jazz bassists have primarily been an "all-boys club." How does it feel to change that?

Ha! True. Most women in this music have been singers and pianists—let's not forget drummers too! And I don't want to celebrate too soon!! I still have a long ways to go until I am in the club of cats like Ron Carter and Charles Mingus. But, you know Mary Lou Williams was quoted as saying something really intelligent: “The more you immerse yourself in your work, the more you forget if you are a man or a woman.” And, it’s really true. It’s seldom that I really think about the fact I am a woman doing this. Usually, I just feel like me and let other people fuss about my gender.

What jazz greats (or non-jazz greats) have inspired you to play? Are you a hip-hop head?

I often look to hip-hop for inspiration on how to make acoustic instruments sound, in effect an acoustic or “jazz” band, have the same energy and magnetism of a produced track. And, honestly I draw inspiration from SO many places. But a few of my favorites are Wayne Shorter, Milton Nascimento, Earth, Wind & Fire, Black Star, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Andre 3000, Betty Carter, Joe Lovano, Gnarls Barkley, The Roots…I feel lame only mentioning these few, because there are quite a lot more!!

Assuming you own an iPod (or any MP3 player), what artists would I find on there right now? Do you collect jazz on vinyl? What would be the one album you would never sell and why?

Most of the time, I order discs online from Amazon, so my house is a mess, full of CDs. There are literally overflowing piles of CDs all over my house. I can't help it. I love having something in my hand I can read and look at while I listen. I still have my Discman and I carry around a few CDs on tour. Right now I am carrying Minnie Riperton, A Tribe Called Quest, The John Coltrane Quartet - Live at the Showboat Philadelphia (RLR Recordings, 1963), and a few more I have received from people on tour. I would never sell any of my stuff…I always give 'em away! I do have one vinyl copy of Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Duke Ellington Songbook (Verve Records, 1957) that I will never sell. I had a copy of it when I was younger, and it’s very dear to me.

A few nights ago, I was listening to NPR's Jazzset and I caught your band performing at Sculler's Jazz Club in Boston back in fall 2006. What I noticed almost immediately was the strong Brazilian influence in your vocals and the band's overall sound. Where did this influence come from?

From the beginning of my studying jazz, Brazilian music was there. I used to listen to many old Brazilian records from João Donato, Quarteto Novo, João Gilberto and especially Hermeto Pascoal. I think the rhythms and melodies infected my musical approach to directing my own music from the beginning. I also spent a little bit of time in Brazil and dated a Brazilian guy who had an amazing collection of records. He turned me on to a lot of incredible music, and I “borrowed” (really took :) many of his records.

I often have long discussions with my friends about the state of black music—whether there will ever be another Marvin Gaye or John Coltrane. And in this sea of reality shows and bling, black music's future looks very dim. How do you stay motivated to perform in this new era of black music?

Black music will be fine, because it exists outside of all of the media hype and garbage, which it sounds like you are alluding to when you mention bling, reality shows, etc. There may even be the Marvin Gaye’s and Coltrane’s now, but the major media outlet may not embrace them the way that Marvin and Trane were embraced in their era. True lovers of the MUSIC will always be able to discern who is doing something worthwhile, and who is simply a passing fad created by the media. When I go to a live show and see every kind of face, age, and race there to support great black artists, my hope is continually recharged.

Shannon J. Effinger

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Random Thoughts on Marvin Gaye

The absence of Marvin Gaye is deeply felt in today's music. Some people feel that he was just a great crooner and nothing else. I think that Marvin Gaye's talent was (and is) often overlooked.

As I rediscover his music and learn more about his life in reading (and rereading) his biographies, I'm coming to the realization that Marvin Gaye was a visionary. He transformed the music of his childhood (jazz, blues, gospel, and mainly doo-wop) into a completely unique sound that became his signature. Marvin Gaye lived and breathed music. Those closest to him said that he practically lived in his recording studio. He could sing in any pitch and play almost every instrument that he touched.

Many people have said, including Smokey Robinson, that Gaye should have stayed in Belgium and never returned to the United States. Perhaps that's true. But how often do we say that of so many tragedies in music history? I often wished that John Lennon never left The Dakota (NYC) on December 8, 1980, or that Sam Cooke didn't go to the Hacienda Motel (Los Angeles) on December 11, 1964. There were so many great losses in music--too many to name. But for me, Marvin Gaye's death still has an impact--as if he were a close friend or even a family member.

It's the honesty that Marvin Gaye puts in all of his music that I feel connected to the most. Never have I heard an artist (maybe Richard Pryor) talk freely about sex, love, war, marriage, and even divorce in their art. He was just an honest creature. And in a world filled with deceit and cynicism, honesty can become easily corrupted. The temptation for Gaye was everywhere he turned--from prostitutes to drugs to the ultimate battle with his own father, Marvin Gay, Sr., who shot his son to death on April 1, 1984, just one day shy of his 45th birthday.

This past summer, I've been consumed by Marvin Gaye--from his biographies, his albums (post-Tammi Terrell) and his documentaries and performances. I think it's the heavens telling me to do something with all of it...and so I will. Not sure what it's going to look like just yet, but this will be a fun and painful project for me. This could very well become my first play--who knows!!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Nina Simone: High Priestess of Soul

Published: September 4, 2008
By Shannon J. Effinger

"I insist on being not one of your clowns, but one of you," she commands of her French audience early on in her performance. When Nina Simone walks out onto the stage, the first word that comes to mind is: regal. "I am a queen," she proudly announces. Her black wrap dress is simple and minimalist. Her silver necklace, a gift from a man who lives in Greece, is modest and beautiful—she pulls attention towards it on more than one occasion during her performance. But for me, it is Simone herself that stands out; she is the radiant gem and her garb serves merely as a backdrop.

The way she looks out into the crowd—with or without her Cheshire-cat like smile—and her unflinching stare make you feel like you are the only person that matters in the room. The intensity and power she gives off while singing is felt in the exaggerated rises and falls in her pitch and the crisp high notes that she holds onto forever. Simone has the ability to make every word count and resonate. I think what surprised me the most about her presence was how seemingly aware she was of her gifts, of her ability to captivate and mesmerize her audience.

Nina Simone was born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon, North Carolina in 1933. In her autobiography I Put a Spell on You (Pantheon Books, 1991), she recalls that most of her childhood memories were tied up in music. "Everything that happened to me as a child involved music," she said. "It was part of everyday life, as automatic as breathing."

As an infant during Sunday services at church, her family and parishioners remember how her tiny infant hands were able to clap in time with the choir. At just two-and-a-half, Simone climbed up to the piano bench and tried very hard to play the keys on the family organ. She was able to strike each key with more force in just a few months. Mary Kate, her mother, was astonished when she heard her barely three year old daughter play "God Be with You 'Til We Meet Again," in the key of F. "To Momma's mind there was only one explanation: I had received a gift from God," wrote Simone of the event.

At six and a half, Simone was introduced to an Englishwoman named Mrs. Massinovitch, whom she affectionately called "Miz Mazzy." She would become Simone's first and perhaps most significant introduction to classical training. Miz Mazzy introduced Simone to the world of classical music: Beethoven, Liszt, Czerny, and her favorite, Bach. Her time with Miz Mazzy taught her valuable lessons in technique: how to properly hold her hands at the piano, how to improve the spread of her fingers, and how to play from the shoulders and not from the wrists. But her lessons went beyond technique. Simone also learned how to carry herself on stage, things like bowing and walking on and off a stage with grace, and she even learned how to sit up straight and exude elegance while she played.

Both her training with Miz Mazzy and her eventual studies at Juilliard amply prepared Simone to share her talents with the rest of the world. Sid Nathan, the owner of Bethlehem Records, arrived at her home one evening. He brought with him a ton of songs for her to play and a list of musicians that he had chosen to become Simone's studio band. She told him straight away she didn't want to play his songs and if she was going to make an album, she would choose the material. Simone also told Nathan that she would pick the musicians she wanted to back her. What Nathan didn't know was that fame was never a huge ambition for her. When Nathan returned later that afternoon, he agreed to all of her conditions and offered her a contract to record Little Girl Blue in 1957.

Aside from the hectic touring schedules that come with being a professional musician, her success did have other drawbacks. Simone had to find a way to deal with being labeled. She began to notice that many of the critics would often compare her to Billie Holiday because of "Porgy (I Loves You Porgy)." She hated that because it was just one of many songs that she had performed and all of them were quite distinct.

"What made me mad was that it meant people couldn't get past the fact we were both black," she said. "If I had happened to be white, nobody would have made the connection." She further added that it was wrong to put her into a box. "Calling me a jazz singer was a way of ignoring my musical background because I didn't fit into white ideas of what a black performer should be. It was a racist thing; 'If she's black she must be a jazz singer.'"

A number of tragedies of the 1960s inspired some of Simone's greatest work. Her life as a mother and a wife had always taken a back seat to her music, but perhaps even more so now; the Civil Rights movement had consumed her. Though her touring and practice continued to keep her isolated, Simone would listen to the radio more often to keep up with any changes in the struggle. It was her idealism that made her believe that things were going to change for the better for black people.

On June 12th, the night after Kennedy's announcement that he would present a new Civil Rights Bill to Congress, Medgar Evers, a field secretary for the NAACP chapter in Jackson, Mississippi, was fatally shot on the steps of his home. The Mississippi governor shook the hand of the accused killer, a white man, during the trial. "While Medgar Evers' murder was not the final straw for me, it was the match that lit the fuse," Simone said.

She was living in Mount Vernon, NY and had a den built over the garage where she would spend several hours practicing for a show. As she began to prepare for her week-long engagement at the Village Gate in New York City, Simone heard some terrible news over the radio. The Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, once a haven for both its worshippers and civil rights workers in Birmingham, Alabama, was struck by a dynamite bomb on September 15th, killing four girls: Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins. A riot broke out later that day and the police shot a black kid, and a black man was pulled off of his bike and beaten to death by a white mob.

"I suddenly realized what it was to be black in America in 1963, but it wasn't an intellectual connection of the type Lorraine [Hansberry] had been repeating to me over and over," Simone said. "It came as a rush of fury, hatred and determination. In church language, the Truth entered me and I 'came through.'" Simone's rage caused her to rummage through her garage and pull out every tool that she could find. Andy, her husband and a retired cop, came up about an hour later and asked what she was doing. She couldn't speak and when she tried to speak, the words didn't really make sense. Simone was going to make a gun, a homemade pistol.

She had wanted to kill for those four little girls, for Medgar Evers, and for all black people who were victims of violence motivated by racism. Andy stood there and said to her, "Nina, you don't know anything about killing. The only thing you've got is music." Then he left her alone to give her time to calm down. At that moment, she wasn't really convinced that nonviolent protests were helping black people anymore. That disturbed her more than the anger she had felt. But Simone realized that Andy was right, that she didn't have it in her to kill anybody. So an hour later, she wrote the sheet music for "Mississippi Goddam" (Philips Records, 1964):

Alabama's gotten me so upset
Tennessee made me lose my rest
And everybody knows about Mississippi goddam
This is a show tune
But the show hasn't been written for it, yet

Hound dogs on my trail
School children sitting in jail
Black cat cross my path
I think every day's gonna be my last

Lord have mercy on this land of mine
We all gonna get it in due time
I don't belong here
I don't belong there
I've even stopped believing in prayer

One dealer in South Carolina returned a bunch of copies back to her office with each copy of "Mississippi Goddam" cut in half. Some states even blocked the word "goddam," and released it as "Mississippi #**#!," which made her laugh. Otherwise it was a huge hit everywhere she performed it.

But Simone still had her insecurities about these songs: "How can you take the memory of a man like Medgar Evers and reduce all that he was to three-and-a-half minutes and a simple tune?" It was too late for her to turn back. Her protest songs were an essential part of the movement and time eventually gave her a great sense of pride to know that she had made that kind of impact. The civil rights era would drive her and her musical direction for the next seven years.

We lost our "High Priestess of Soul" to cancer back in 2003. Three years later, on February 21st, her birthday, a sold out crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music watched Nina Simone: Love Sorceress, filmed by Rene Letzgus at the 1976 Montreux Jazz Festival. Most of the audience had only encountered Simone through listening to her music. The great thing about a concert film is that it can capture what many may already know about Simone the musician—her incomparable piano playing, her insightful lyrics, her vocal arrangements. And the music can shed some light on who Simone, the woman, might have been: confident, secure, and often charismatic.

Selected Discography

Nina Simone, Nina Simone Sings the Blues (RCA Victor, 1967)
Nina Simone, High Priestess of Soul (Philips Records, 1967)
Nina Simone, I Put a Spell on You (Philips Records, 1965)
Nina Simone, Nina Simone in Concert (Philips Records, 1964)
Nina Simone, Nina Simone at Carnegie Hall (Colpix Records, 1963)
Nina Simone, Nina Simone at the Village Gate (Colpix Records, 1962)
Nina Simone, Nina Simone Sings Ellington (Colpix Records, 1962)
Nina Simone, Little Girl Blue (Bethlehem Records, 1958)

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Junk Science - Gran' Dad's Nerve Tonic

Junk Science
Gran' Dad's Nerve Tonic
Shannon Effinger
Published on

Add DJ Snafu’s lo-fi jazzy samples over bass-heavy “boom bap” beats with Emcee Baje One’s playfully defiant lyrics, and you’ll get a wonderful concoction known as Gran’ Dad’s Nerve Tonic. Junk Science, the Brooklyn-based hip-hop duo, doesn’t suggest that their sophomore album promotes excessive drinking. As Baje One explains on their myspace page, “It's not a record about alcohol or alcoholism per se, as much as the record itself is the drink that me and Snafu needed and couldn't find anywhere on the shelves.” The search for good music is a common dilemma for true hip hop heads and in most cases, underground hip hop has been their antidote of choice. However, songs like “Do It Easy” and “Glass House (featuring MC K~Swift & Cavalier)” suggest otherwise. With an infectious sample hook from “My Melody,” by Eric B. & Rakim, “Do It Easy” makes their everyday financial stresses (bounced checks and lack of health insurance) comical, while “Glass House” best shows their ambivalence to being underground: “I try to beep out business but I wind up confused/Between my Communist views and taste for fly shoes.” Junk Science is not the “explosive combination” that they claim to be on “Pop Rocks,” but their different approaches throughout nicely complement one another.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Fela is my Black President!

Shannon Effinger
Written on (

With Bill T. Jones' brilliant choreography, Antibalas' authentic African music and the wonderful cast of actors, Fela Kuti, the father of Afrobeat, will find a new generation of followers in NYC. Fela! is an enjoyable ride from beginning to end and it paints a picture of how this one man challenged not only the dictatorial government of West Africa, but ultimately the entire world. It's 3 hours long (one short intermission) but with the amazing cast, music, and choreography, it will not only entertain you, but also will inspire you to learn more about this true freedom fighter.

Hip-Hop Nostalgia

by Shannon J. Effinger
July 7, 2008

My journey with hip-hop began when I was four or five years old. I lived in a rundown tenement house on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, Brooklyn, with Tara, my older sister, and my mother and father. I do not remember very much about growing up in Coney Island. Most of my memories from back then are of my parents. I remember sitting on the floor and watching my father fix old television sets for neighbors in our living room and how nice it felt when the sunlight from the windows would hit my legs. I remember the smells of Royal Crown hair grease and burning hair from my mother’s hot comb on top of the stove and how those smells coming from our kitchen always showed up on Saturday mornings. I have faint memories of shiny bits of glass on black-tarred streets that my mom had to stop me from picking up, and the fact that we lived next to a vacant lot that was home to garbage, rats, and old sofas with springs bursting through. I hated it. None of the other houses had vacant lots sitting right next door to them. But at nights and on the weekends, the vacant lot was transformed into something else, something magical.

With the power of the neighborhood’s street lamp, djs were able to get enough “juice” to test out their speakers and turntables. I remember the first time Tara walked with me over to the vacant lot to watch the breakers—the dancers—flatten out cardboard boxes and find smooth surfaces in the lot to lay them on. I was nervous and excited about being there at the same time. Although I was quite young, I knew that something phenomenal was about to happen.

The breakers began with simple hand stands, then they would hand walk back and forth. They tested out a few turns and spins to warm up. Tara grabbed my arm and pulled us both as close as possible, as the crowds would eventually double, even triple, in size. When the djs began to scratch and Afrika Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation’s classic song “Planet Rock” began to play, people ran over in droves and the break dancing challenge would begin. Whichever dancer received the most applause would unofficially be proclaimed the best breaker on the block. The breakers would kick it out and then defy all laws of gravity; their bodies flew effortlessly into the air and they would spin on their heads at record speeds just to please the crowd. And they did. I was in awe.

One night, I was so eager to learn how to breakdance and enthrall the crowd like the breakers did that I attempted a hand stand and tried to spin on top of my head. My tucked-in shirt fell out of my pants, exposing my stomach, and I fell all over myself. My sister stood watching and laughed at me. And I have been in love with hip-hop ever since.


(The Artist Formerly Known As) Lauryn Hill

by Shannon J. Effinger
July 21, 2008

01: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

If I talk about Lauryn Hill today, I can only refer to her in the past tense. Her first album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, has sold millions of copies worldwide. In 1999, she was the first female artist to win five Grammys for her solo effort, including Album of the Year—the first time that such an honor had been given to a hip-hop record. Hill was the rejuvenation that popular music needed at that time—a perfect blend of old school R&B with a keen intellect and current social awareness to move hip-hop towards a more brilliant future. At just 23, Hill demanded that the entire world stand at attention and finally acknowledge hip-hop as American music's legitimate son, alongside jazz and rock n' roll. Then suddenly, she walked away from it all: the fame, her loyal fan base, and more importantly, the music. In the summer of 2001, she returned to us with an acoustic MTV Unplugged performance and CD. Gone forever were the dreadlocks, her organic, effortless style—a blend of ghetto chic and high-end fashionista—the entourage and the numerous musicians that once backed her. She wore no make-up, jeans, and a Yankee baseball cap with a scarf underneath. "Fantasy is what people want, but reality is what they need," Hill announced to her Unplugged audience. "I've just retired from the fantasy part."

When I first heard Hill utter those words, I knew that this was going to be a prophetic and groundbreaking album, but I knew it would also mark the end of her professional career. She was supposed to make an album similar to her first, to stick with the "plan." But that wasn't Hill's plan. Like most artists, Hill wanted the freedom to experiment and share an entirely different message. Songs like "Adam Lives in Theory" and "Mystery of Iniquity" (the latter sampled by Kanye West for his song "All Falls Down") completely went over the heads of those present in that audience. Her performance that night was less than stellar, with Hill's cracking voice and shaky guitar riffs. Her lyrics, however, were so powerful in that they conjured the spirits of Bob Dylan and Bob Marley, but it was clearly her own voice. She not only challenged the record industry, but also the roles that both government and religion play in our lives. Hill took advantage of the influence she had on young people and used her fame to spread her album's message of protest and rebellion. Her second album only sold a fraction of the first album's sales. Soon after, she left us again.

02: The Reeducation of "Ms. Hill"

In the July/August 2005 issue of TRACE Magazine, Lauryn Hill was interviewed for the first time in nearly seven years since the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Arriving two and a half hours late, she insisted that everyone call her "Ms. Hill." She immediately threw all of the editorial and production crews out of the room. Hill would not allow their makeup artist to touch her face and asked for a last minute replacement. She even requested that mirrors be placed to the left of the camera so that she could approve her own image before the photographer captured it. This was not the same open, humble Lauryn Hill that we once knew. Someone might sum up her behavior in one simple word: "diva." Perhaps she is. Between the reality shows and tabloids' compulsive obsession with celebrities, Hill was led to reject what she considered as the "absolute commercialization" of her identity. She was an artist and a person with conviction, not a personality. With all of the designer goods brought in for this photo shoot, the role of celebrity was perhaps the only label that Hill was never comfortable wearing. I don't think that Hill wanted to build up these walls, but they have become a necessity for her. Not only to maintain her privacy (and sanity), but to also show the world that she controlled how "Lauryn Hill" would be seen and heard throughout the world.

During her interview, Hill explained why hip-hop music, and ultimately our youth culture, has gone astray. In two words, she summarized what has taken me years to figure out: "generational abortion." In previous decades, most art was a response to wars, discrimination, and the racism that surrounded them. Music was more than a form of release; it was also the voice and protest of a youth that had been silenced. What I think Hill meant was that today's youth somehow forgot about that. Music, at its best, has the power to make change, to inspire and motivate people.

Next month will mark the 10th anniversary of the release of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Since the release of this seminal album, the music industry still has not found an artist who could fill the void. Not since Miles Davis or Prince have I encountered such an artist who has her foot firmly planted in both the past and present of black music and can create a sound that is uniquely her own. This album was an inspiration for everyone, especially for young black girls and women who did not often see positive, beautiful images of color to look up to. Hill set a standard in the music industry that most of today's artists, frankly, still have not met. She's so wise beyond her 33 years and I truly doubt that we have heard the last word from "Ms. Hill."


Frida Kahlo Centennial Exhibition

by Shannon J. Effinger

June 18, 2008

On Sunday, May 18th, I eagerly waited with bated breath on one of two very long lines to see Frida Kahlo, an exhibition of Kahlo's personal photos, her still life, and her signature portraiture on canvas, at the
Philadelphia Museum of Art. The day was gloomy with a dark, overcast sky and cool winds, and yet somehow, it set the perfect mood for this particular exhibition. Organized by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, it is a year long celebration of the 100th anniversary of Kahlo's birth. It began last October in Minneapolis then headed east to Philadelphia, and on Saturday, June 14th, it will journey west to San Francisco and conclude its run. Taking as many pictures as I could outside of the museum, I was a little distressed that cameras were prohibited during the exhibit. I couldn't somehow put her work into a capsule and take her home with me, but the impact of Kahlo's paintings will always remain in my mind.

Having been a fan of Kahlo's work for as long as I can remember, I jump at the chance each time there's an opportunity to see her art up close. I've always said that I hope to someday write as Kahlo painted—honestly, unabashed, without discretion. She would often say, "I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality." What makes her work so innovative is not only her unconventional technique and brush strokes, but also her ability to put the human condition onto canvas. Kahlo is almost always the subject in her portraits, and yet they each tell vastly different stories with themes that range from overflowing love of self and humanity to betrayal to a deep, unspeakable physical pain and heartache. Very few painters have been able to capture that sort of intimacy in their work. Each of Kahlo's paintings are like chapters in the autobiography of her short, fascinating life.

I was very pleased to see one of my favorite Kahlo paintings on display as part of the exhibit. "The Two Fridas," I think, best personifies the female experience. When I first encountered this enormous oil on canvas, I looked at it objectively. On the surface, it shows two Frida Kahlos: one dressed in the European style, a traditional, white lace dress considered to be "proper" society fashion for a "lady." The other Frida is dressed in Tehuana fashion, in hues of deep sea blue and earthy brown, which was traditional dress for Aztec and Mexican women. The first word that came to my mind when I saw this painting was 'feminist.' It was a theme that would stay with me for years, but it wasn't the first time it had appeared. I also encountered this theme once before after reading Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Many consider this work to be a feminist manifesto—the struggle between the white, quiet mannered woman of society (Jane Eyre) and the Creole woman, Bertha Mason, who is kept secretly locked away by Edward Rochester, Jane's paramour and Mason's husband, in the attic because of her violent fits and rage. A lot like Bronte's Jane Eyre, "The Two Fridas" goes a lot deeper than that.

During the exhibit, I learned that Kahlo painted this work in 1939. I then realized that had to be around the time when her marriage to renowned Mexican muralist Diego Rivera was coming to an end. After 10 years of marriage, Rivera asked Kahlo for a divorce. This, needless to say, devastated her. When looking closely at "The Two Fridas," you start to really notice some of the other details in the work. The European Frida uses tiny scissors to cut out her heart and its main vessels and gives it to the Mexican Frida. She is holding the scissors on her lap and there are drops of blood falling on the white lace dress that almost blend in with the little red flowers on the bottom of the dress, until you see some of the blood drops splatter. Some might interpret this as nationalistic pride, a deep pride and love for her native country of Mexico in her native dress. Others may interpret this work to mean that Kahlo subconsciously resented her rising fame and attention in the art world and wanted to live only for Rivera, as a dutiful Mexican wife. I think that almost any deep interpretation of this painting has valid points to them, for the one theme that definitely comes across is her constant self-examination.

If you're in the mood for some introspection and can't afford the trip to Mexico this summer, check out this amazing exhibit during its final months at the
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.


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