POP IS DEAD?: DEFENDING THE STATUS QUO OF MODERN MUSICALITY – Omari I.O. Kenyatta

This post is a guest blog from Kamehameha student Omari Kenyatta, who I think could become a new voice on the music (and perhaps music criticism) scene. 

During the 80s, in the time of extravagant musical experimentation swarming the studios of Sunset Boulevard, my father worked as a producer and audio engineer for RCA Records. He worked down the hall from Diane Warren, conjuring a similar arsenal of R&B-infused hip-hop, reggae and pop records.

Today, my dad’s work is far less flashy and sensational, but he insists that his new career is far more fulfilling.

Reducing his full collection of studio furnishings to a single Squier Strat and a copy of Cubase Pro housed on a hard drive proved to be a major challenge during my dad’s move from L.A. to Oʻahu. But as far as I can remember, he always made time to sit himself down and hold a late-night jam session for one.

Naturally, as I grew older, I would learn a few tidbits of general music knowledge in passing if we weren’t talking about it together. He would always tell me that all good music has some soul about it. Being that my dad is predominately African-American and raised in a Black environment, I always assumed it meant that he preferred R&B and soul music because it sounded better. One night, when I was around 12 or 13, he made it clear that he thought of “soul music” as a concept, not a genre. He explained that making music that is original and inspired transcends all genres, and most importantly, all racial identities.

A prominent difference you’ll notice right away between my father and I is that he, unlike me, is not a rock music kind of guy. I found my first personal tastes in the primal shouts and wails of Bad Brains and Black Flag and the punching fuzz guitars of Metallica and Marilyn Manson. Meanwhile, you’ll find my dad deep in the groove of a Parliament record or nodding his head contently to his Bob Marley: Legend cassette. But being that both of us seek and study talent, musicality, and inexplicable soul anywhere it would happen to exist, you’ll also find my dad’s back collection of Green Day CDs, and the giant Maggot Brain poster hanging just above my desk.

Observing this phenomenon in my own home granted me with a unique perspective to offer when older, self-proclaimed music aficionados of yesteryear began to accuse my generation of producing an ever-growing string of cheap music, completely devoid of any thought, talent or soul. Usually these critics stand behind the generalized assumption that “pop is dead”, or, assuming that it still somewhat alive, that “today’s pop music sucks”. For me and my dad, it was simple to point out that if you were to look beyond the surface of pop music that is so obviously written to sell, you’ll find that there are big-time acts out right now who write and play with the same quality and musicianship as those who have come before.

My dad and I first came to this sort of agreement listening to a live recording of the John Mayer Trio in an attempt to stay awake through a bout of heinous H-1 evening traffic. “Gravity” booms through the compact, but surprisingly powerful subwoofer in the cab of our F-150.

Drummer Steve Jordan rocks the song slowly into full swing with a deceptively simple 4/4 backbeat. We both marvel at Jordan’s masterful inclusion of a ghost triplet on the one that seemed to warm up the entire atmosphere of the track. And then, John picks out all of six notes in a subtle blues riff, and the rest of the band fills in the rhythm groove in the back. Each note flows into the next and speaks to an intangible feeling of ecstatic melancholia that is yet to be explored by the song’s lyricism. My dad observes that the entire song is built on small, modest nuances that anyone could play in an hour, but it is the control and phrasing of these nuances that propels the song forward into soulful territory.

Mayer croons:

Gravity

Is working against me

He lets individual syllables ring out and register in the mind of the listener, and sets up a powerful extended metaphor, no more than eight words at a time. His guitar chimes in its higher register in the silence between line breaks. Pino Palladino’s bass accentuates the root chord of the progression and brings the chord circle home just in time for a new musing from the narrator of the song.

Absent a chorus, a bridge-of-sorts builds tension in each new verse:

Twice as much

Ain’t twice as good

And can’t sustain

Like one half could

It’s wanting more

Itʻs gonna send me to

My knees

Leading up to a point of both maximum and tension and minimal relief during the vibrant, flighty guitar solo.

Then another verse, holding back just a bit.

And then an explosive coda that dimly brightens an otherwise completely blue auditory landscape, with just five simple words:

(Keep me)

Home where the light is

Home where the light is

Home where the light is

Home where the light is

Repeating itself, gradually losing intensity, until everything returns to the silence from which it came.

Five minutes, five chords, one simple idea, infinitely open to personal interpretation-otherwise known as a basic formula for a fast-selling pop song. How can a few simple music theory tricks and guitar licks evolve the idea so drastically?

This can be found almost anywhere a listener dare venture, from Young the Giant to Lukas Graham. While guys like these may be far from the levels of success and viral fame enjoyed by mumble rappers and autotuned preteens, any listener with an open ear that can hear these miniscule differences can find something good within their own personal preference, including modern pop music.

Of course, at the end of the day, appreciation for any form of art is entirely personal. What separates good art from bad art is individual at its core. And what do I know? Iʻm just a kid. But if you choose to categorize an entire group, genre, or subdivision based on a few outliers that misrepresent their alignments, one could also choose to generalize a group based on their principles of good art and creativity.

Just like finding a few bad acts can easily result from actively seeking them out, finding these hidden gems can be just as easy.

Omari I.O. Kenyatta is a third-year student at Kamehameha Schools Kapālama High School, living Nānakuli, Hawaiʻi. He is the frontman and founder of alternative music project King Cave, and is currently developing a stage adaptation for Radiohead’s OK COMPUTER. 

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Americanization or Denationalization?

The presentation below was for Hina Kaʻōpua’s (daughter of Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua) Senior project for Halau Ku Mana Public Charter School. It was done at the Kamehameha Schools’ Māʻili Learning Center.

The poem I reference in the presentation is below:

The Indian Student, or: Force of Nature

by Phillip Freneau

From Susquehanna’s farthest springs
Where savage tribes pursue their game,
(His blanket tied with yellow strings,)
A shepherd of the forest came.

Not long before, a wandering priest
Expressed his wish, with visage sad–
“Ah, why (he cried) in Satan’s waste,
“Ah, why detain so fine a lad?

“In white-man’s land there stands a town
“Where learning may be purchased low–
“Exchange his blanket for a gown,
“And let the lad to college go.’–

From long debate the council rose,
And viewing Shalum’s tricks with joy
To Cambridge Hall, o’er wastes of snows,
They sent the copper-coloured boy.

One generous chief a bow supplied,
This gave a shaft, and that a skin;
The feathers, in vermillion dyed,
Himself did from a turkey win:

Thus dressed so gay, he took his way
O’er barren hills, alone, alone!
His guide a star, he wandered far,
His pillow every night a stone.

At last he came, with foot so lame,
Where learned men talk heathen Greek,
And Hebrew lore is gabbled o’er,
To please the Muses,–twice a week.

Awhile he writ, awhile he read,
Awhile he conned their grammar rules–
(An Indian savage so well bred
Great credit promised to the schools.)

Some thought he would in law excel,
Some said in physic he would shine;
And one that knew him, passing well,
Beheld, in him, a sound Divine.

But those of more discerning eye
Even then could other prospects show,
And saw him lay his Virgil by
To wander with his dearer bow.

The tedious hours of study spent,
The heavy-moulded lecture done,
He to the woods a hunting went,
Through lonely wastes he walked, he run.

No mystic wonders fired his mind;
He sought to gain no learned degree,
But only sense enough to find
The squirrel in the hollow tree.

The shady bank, the purling stream,
The woody wild his heart possessed,
The dewy lawn, his morning dream
In fancy’s gayest colours dressed.

“And why (he cried) did I forsake
“My native wood for gloomy walls;
“The silver stream, the limpid lake
“For musty books and college halls.

“A little could my wants supply–
“Can wealth and honour give me more;
“Or, will the sylvan god deny
“The humble treat he gave before?

“Let seraphs gain the bright abode,
“And heaven’s sublimest mansions see–
“I only bow to Nature’s God–
“The land of shades will do for me.

“These dreadful secrets of the sky
“Alarm my soul with chilling fear–
“Do planets in their orbits fly,
“And is the earth, indeed, a sphere?

“Let planets still their course pursue,
“And comets to the centre run–
“In Him my faithful friend I view,
“The image of my God–the Sun.

“Where Nature’s ancient forests grow,
“And mingled laurel never fades,
“My heart is fixed;–and I must go
“To die among my native shades.’

He spoke, and to the western springs,
(His gown discharged, his money spent,
His blanket tied with yellow strings,)
The shepherd of the forest went.

 

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Violence, Ends and Means: Is the world getting more peaceful? Then why all the contempt?

According to The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, violence has decreased in a big way in urban settings. In 2016, 385 were killed in New York, compared with 2000 in a typical year in the 1970s. Other major cities have followed this trend.

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Maya Soetoro-Ng, director of the Matsunaga Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution at UH Mānoa (my supervisor there and, incidentally, sister of Barack Obama) noted in a presentation to my students that there are currently 37 armed conflicts in the world. This is a 33% decrease from the 55 armed conflicts of just 15-20 years ago. Both then and now, the vast majority of these conflicts are civil wars. According to Francis Fukuyama (of “the end of history” fame), Civil wars occurred roughly every 50 years in England from 1066 until the late 1600s (about 1685).

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Since then, inter-state wars raged, especially in the 20th century, but that gave way to more and more peace between states (that is, countries). The decrease of war in general, coupled with the rise (but only relative rise) of civil wars tell us two things: the nation-state as we know it may be in its twilight, and at the same time the world is getting safer and more peaceful.

All of this supports the seemingly outlandish claim of Stephen Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature (and more recently Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress), that violence is declining worldwide. So why does it seem that the opposite is happening? Could it be, as Michael Moore asserts in Bowling for Columbine, that it is simply the fear of violence that’s increasing?

In a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Arthur Brooks argued that the problem in politics today is not opposing views – that in itself is healthy in a democracy – the problem is an epidemic of contempt, which Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines as:

  • : the act of despising : the state of mind of one who despises : disdain glared at him in contempt

  • : lack of respect or reverence for something acting with contempt for public safety

  • : the state of being despised

Through their contempt, the two sides are so entrenched now that each has vilified the “Other,” in a way, dehumanizing them.

In the 1990s, I remember having a remarkably cordial conversation with a conservative (not conservative by today’s ludicrous standards perhaps, but no bleeding heart), middle-aged man from upstate New York, and being struck by how, on the topic of outcomes, we were in near total agreement. We all, it seems, want the same ends; dignity, opportunity for ourselves and our children, in short, a decent life. Where we differed was on the means to achieve these ends.

 

Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: How Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion offers a bridge over the impasse, one that many, if not all sides of the debate find intriguing (the “New Atheists” in particular singly seem to despise the argument). Haidt:

goes about demonstrating why [mutual understanding] is such a difficult thing for us to achieve, and what the tools are that could make it possible. It’s a difficult read, not because of the style, but because the content may challenge you to accept that the ‘other side’ isn’t so bad after all, and that perhaps your own moralistic mind could do with a shake up.

London School of Economics Review of Books (UK). Review by Rebecca Litchfield.

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Misconceptions about the Overthrow

1. That Hawaiʻiʻs sovereignty was lost
Many think that Hawaiʻi lost sovereignty on January 17th 1893. Yet most also seem to know that annexation was five years later in 1898. This shows that what I call “double think” is operating when people think about the overthrow. Hawaiʻi, whether as the Kingdom or as the republic in 1898 was sovereign. If it wasnʻt, there wouldnʻt be any need for a treaty at all. (If a treaty wasnʻt needed, then why did the US try twice to get one?)

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The Palace, Jan. 17, 2018

2. That the overthrow was inevitable
After the Provisional Government proclaimed themselves, Queen Liliʻuokalani still had control of the Police and the Royal Guard – in other words, all of the armed forces of the Hawaiian islands. So there was really no overthrow, there was a surrender by a head of state who was in full control of the government apparatus of Hawaiʻi, although the US Marines had temporarily occupied Honolulu.

Afterwards, Grover Cleveland negotiated an agreement of restoration with Liliʻuokalani, who, as she notes in her book Hawaiʻi’s Story, still considered her the head of state as late as December, 1893, a full 11 months after the overthrow.

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The statue of Queen Liliʻuokalani at the state legislature reads “Queen of Hawaiʻi 1891 – 1917”

3. That it was “US backed”
It is well-established that President Benjamin Harrison gave a green light for the overthrow, without explicitly saying the words. “If you people act as you have indicated, you will find an exceedingly sympathetic administration here.” There is also an encoded US document that, it is alleged, actually gives a plan for an overthrow, but this needs to be vetted by historians. What we have then, it seems, is a US, not a US-Backed, overthrow.

4. That its legality is debatable
Some people seem to have forgotten about the 1993 apology resolution (Public Law 103-150), which makes the illegality of the overthrow a settled issue. I havenʻt.

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Genealogies of the Postcolonial

A lecture from my course Indigenous Nonviolent Action in the Asia-Pacific.

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The World’s Most Important Living Intellectuals

I wrote in an article in The Hawaiʻi Independent that most Americans couldn’t name a single intellectual. When then-candidate George W. Bush was asked who his favorite philosopher was, he famously answered “Jesus,” suggesting that he, like most Americans couldn’t name a single philosopher. In this post, I attempt a quick and dirty remedy to this. This is not a list for intellectuals, who will ask “where’s Agamben, or Ranciere, or [insert their favorite  theorist]?” but a list of intellectuals:

Cornel West

“Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be “white”– they would be Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and other engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity. (p. 107-108)”
― Cornel WestRace Matters

West is an intellectual who manages to balance popular relevance (he was in one of the Matrix films and did the DVD analysis track, along with Integral philosopher Ken Wilber – see below) and intellectual weight – a tricky balance. A “jazz man in the world of ideas,” his Race Matters, remains a critical text for negotiating the politically-correct halls of academe. A theologian by training, West has specialized in African-American – Jewish relations. West does not only engage in popular formats, he speaks in pop culture terms: he said regarding Obama that progressives expected of him John Coltrane and got Kenny G. He called Hillary Clinton “the Milli Vanilli of politics” – there’s no bigger insult, as far as I am concerned, than to compare someone to the group that almost single-handedly destroyed pop music my Senior year in high school.

His battle with Neo-Conservative Harvard President Lawrence Summers precipitated a return to Princeton, breaking up the greatest Afro-American Studies department in history. There he was a colleague of…

Henry Louis Gates

“The thing about black history is that the truth is so much more complex than anything you could make up.”
— Henry Louis Gates

An Afro-American Studies professor of mine at Harvard once hinted to me, somewhat scornfully, that Gates had a 40-page CV (academic resume). When I mentioned this to another academic acquaintance, she said “that sounds about right, for him.” As much a documentarian as a scholar these days, Gates’s most recent history of Africa may be his Magnum Opus.

Slavoj Zizek

We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.

A Lacanian Marxist from Slovenia: this strange epithet is surprisingly descriptive of the Elvis of Cultural Studies, and yet inadequate. His apprenticeship to the enigmatic psychotherapist Jaques Lacan partly accounts, in my view, for Zizek’s seemingly endless string of insights into the underlying psychological bases of ideology – his main object of study. Zizek has a magnetic presence, an entertaining style, even, by his own admission, a “half-clown” persona. These make him a star on YouTube, the world’s number one website. But Zizek’s constant attention to popular culture (Star Wars, The Avengers, etc.) belie his status as a true philosopher – his The Sublime Object of Ideology is a tome to Hegel, the philosopher to whom all other moderns are merely footnotes. In this Big Think video, Zizek encourages us not to act, “just think:”

Gayatri Spivak

“Can the subaltern speak?”

A translator of Jaques Derrida, Spivak is in a way his intellectual heir. Her contributions to subaltern studies (the study of the powerless) shows the class power dynamic functions in academia. To illustrate the concept of how the global South (the so-called “third world”) is silenced, she used footnotes to compose an entire “subaltern” text in the “South” of the paper. A famous question she asks is “can the subaltern speak?” Her answer in the negative shows the entrenched nature of the very power structure she examines.

Alain de Botton

“We will cease to be angry once we cease to be so hopeful.”

Some may scream here “pseudo-intellectual!” but I disagree. de Botton was in the process of getting a PhD in French philosophy at Harvard when he was unceremoniously kicked out of the program for writing How Proust can Change your Life, which the department saw as a self-help book (he has a Master’s in philosophy from Cambridge University). “We do not write self-help books” was the response; de Botton once said “under different circumstances I might have been an academic” – he never looked back and has probably laughed all the way to the bank (his account in which is considerable being the son of a financier worth 250 million pounds). After several best-selling books he started the School of Life, a YouTube channel with some of my favorite videos and which is an actual school of practical philosophy, with campuses around the world. One of his contributions is to bring back the value of stoicism and even pessimism, as the epigraph to this section shows. As I wrote in “Philosophy as Therapy:”

Alain de Botton wrote The Consolations of Philosophy, which became one of the best-selling books on philosophy in recent years. He certainly has a knack for making the  field of philosophy practical for everyday use. Along with an accompanying series of videos, de Botton shows us how Schopenhauer can help us with love, Seneca with anger and fear, Montaigne with self-esteem, Epicurus with happiness, and Socrates with self-confidence.

 

Judith Butler

“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.”

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)

Winner of the “Worst writing award” from New Republic, which didnʻt like what it saw as her excessive use of jargon, Butler nevertheless remains central to the field of gender studies. The worst writing award may be taken by some (possibly Butler “her”self) as a badge of honor showing mastery of the word-play of academia. Similarly, a recent video from The Onion parodied her contributions, but in a way that actually explains them:

Ken Wilber

“The point is to unify the opposites, both positive and negative, by discovering a ground which transcends and encompasses both.”

– Ken Wilber

Like de Botton, some will definitely object to Wilber’s inclusion in a list like this, because while Wilber’s influence has been immense, it has been entirely outside of academia.

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Wilber is the architect of Integral theory, and the reasons for his exclusion from the academy are hinted at in this passage I wrote for the post “Integral 101:”

Integral theory is a map that integrates the major domains of reality: the physical (biology, physics), the social (sociology, anthropology, political science), and what could be called our interior (psychology, religion, philosophy), into a meta-system. And here is where it collides with one of the prevailing approaches of academia: postmodernism. Postmodernism is a view that allows for the simultaneous existence of multiple worldviews, even within an individual. It is suspicious of meta narratives, or grand narratives that claim to be independent of their cultural context. Because Integral makes this claim to be cross-cultural, it violates postmodernism’s prime directive. And yet Integral sees postmodernism as a high level of consciousness development, and it is this development that makes up the next component of Integral theory – [what Wilber calls “evolution.”]

Wilber’s integral influence has extended to Bill Clinton and (former UK Prime Minister) Tony Blair, UNESCO and Whole Foods Market.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson*

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson has become a celebrity for skillfully using media, especially social media to bring popular understanding of science. His raison dʻetre:

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

*This description is a place-holder while I wait for my colleague Robert Hutchison to send me his write up of Tyson.

Jurgen Habermas

Science can only be comprehended epistemologically, which means as one category of possible knowledge, as long as knowledge is not equated either effusively with the absolute knowledge of a great philosophy or blindly with scientistic self-understanding of the actual business of research.”

-Jurgen Habermas

The last remaining member of the classic Frankfurt School (Herbert Marcuse, Thodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were the most prominent members), which began the ongoing analysis of popular culture. Habermas is, along with Badiou, Levy, and Chomsky, the last of the old-school intellectuals. He was adamantly opposed to postmodernism and had debates with Jaques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction. He had the following four critiques of postmodernism:

  1. The postmodernists are equivocal about whether they are producing serious theory or literature;
  2. Habermas feels that the postmodernists are animated by normative sentiments but the nature of those sentiments remains concealed from the reader;
  3. Habermas accuses postmodernism of a totalizing perspective that fails “to differentiate phenomena and practices that occur within modern society”
  4. Habermas asserts that postmodernists ignore that which Habermas finds absolutely central – namely, everyday life and its practices.

I started a group on Facebook called “Building an Intellectual Culture,” and in the description I cite Habermas:

The philosopher Jurgen Habermas came up with the idea of the public sphere, a public space in which ideas are informally exchanged – outside of universities and where coffee abounds. The idea for this group came out of a short article I wrote of the same name in the Hawaiʻi Independent. The group attempts to bridge the gap between the ivory tower and mainstream popular culture, which is increasingly anti-intellectual. The group holds Antonio Gramsci’s contention that an intellectual can be “any[one].”

Noam Chomsky

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

– Noam Chomsky

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Chomsky’s influence is hard to describe – it is both massive and subaltern, suppressed. As I wrote in my review of his book Who Rules the World?

Chomsky is the founder of modern linguistics. It’s Einstein. And the linguist uses his field’s most powerful weapon: sarcasm. Politically, Chomsky is an Anarcho-syndicalist, or as he has confusingly put it: a “Libertarian Socialist” (most who know these terms would call that an oxymoron). Over time, I, like many others, have grudgingly come to respect Chomsky as perhaps the legitimate “world’s leading intellectual” – certainly he is the last of a great generation. He also may be the worldʻs most important ignored intellectual. While researching a piece I wrote for Summit magazine on Gore Vidal, I found a clip in which Vidal said that he and Chomsky tried to speak in Harvard Yard, put up flyers, and found them all torn down half an hour later – somehow, 3000 people still showed up. And there is the enigma of his celebrity – the love/hate relationship he has with his supporters and detractors may be precisely the sign of his greatness, or perhaps simply his breadth of thought.

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The Mānoa Academy: What Iʻve been up to

In a recent bio, I described myself as “Manoa Academy Scholar” mainly because this title combines two of the institutions Iʻm working at right now – Kamehameha Schools and UH Mānoa.

Over the past year or so, Iʻve been involved in a dual credit program in which High School students get college credit while in High School for courses taught by UH faculty. Being virtually the only Kamehameha teacher who is also UH faculty, I was at the vanguard of this program. Iʻm now about to begin my third course in this program, Ethnic Studies 221: Hawaiians (Intro to Political Science was offered previously). The video below describes the program, which is also partnering with the following schools:

  1. Henry J. Kaiser High School
  2. Kaimuki High School
  3. Kalani High School
  4. Kamehameha Schools Kapalama
  5. President Theodore Roosevelt High School
  6. Punahou School – Clarence T.C. Ching Pueo Program
  7. Saint Francis School

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