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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