Friday, July 13, 2012

I Wish I Had Said Something

As I was getting ready for work yesterday afternoon, I opened a drawer and pulled out a light gray shirt with a big blue and white Nittany Lion logo on it. Anyone who has followed the Penn State scandal for the last several months most likely heard about the Freeh Report that was released yesterday morning, the product of a months-long investigation into how PSU's administration handled and enabled Jerry Sandusky's sexual abuse of several children. So I knew that, as it did for me, the sight of this shirt would instantly evoke some type of emotion in anyone who saw it yesterday. I decided to wear it anyway, not because I wanted to annoy anyone or demonstrate some type of cliché solidarity with my alma mater; I wore it because this is no ordinary Penn State shirt.

Work was busy last night, so I spent no time thinking about the shirt I was wearing... until one customer said, "You picked a hell of a day to wear that shirt." I looked down at my shirt to be reminded of what he was talking about, then I just smiled and went about my business. He probably meant no harm with his comment, so of course I kept it civil; but I don't believe strongly enough in customer service to come up with some kind of fake, agreeable response. I quit Starbucks a long time ago.

But I wish I had taken a couple of minutes to tell this kid that what I was wearing was no ordinary Penn State shirt.

This shirt was made by Alta Gracia, self-described on their website as "the only apparel company in the world that pays a living wage to the people who make its clothing, respects their rights, provides a safe workplace, and welcomes unrestricted monitoring of its factory by an independent watchdog." It was given to me as a gift from a professor and group of students at Penn State Brandywine (the nearby campus from which I graduated in Spring 2011) as a token of their appreciation for my assistance in helping the campus to attain Fair Trade University status this year. You can read more about the ongoing efforts of the Fair Trade TrailBlazers at Penn State Brandywine here on their blog.

I wish I had shared the Fair Trade gospel with this customer last night. It wouldn't have been too hard to say, "Hey, bash Penn State if you must, but this shirt helped someone earn a living wage in a facility where women and children don't get raped, underfed, and underpaid. What are you wearing?" See, buying and wearing Fair Trade products is one thing; but we often miss out on unique opportunities to make a deeper impact by teaching others why their choices as consumers are crucially crucial. Maybe this individual would have walked away and ignored the message, but someone will eventually pay attention. That's why it's important to get in the habit of educating whenever appropriate and possible.

While I have seen many recent posts online branding Joe Paterno and Penn State as "evil" or worse, I have also seen and heard quite a few more broadly finger-pointing comments about how "the culture" of PSU permitted Sandusky's detestable crimes to go on for so long. "Culture," in this sense, refers to an institutional ethos, a group's set of shared priorities and beliefs that inform how members respond to authority figures, traditions, and unforeseen circumstances. In this case, the alleged cultural crime is a shared prioritization of football and "the glory of old State" at the expense of several young boys who were sexually assaulted on campus by a respected leader. Such blaming of "the culture," while ignoring the many positive contributions made by Penn State students and alumni around the world, are not without a certain validity. Institutions cannot survive without a great deal of accountability and perpetual, internal evaluation of priorities and practices.

But this indictment of university culture should not take the spotlight away from individuals who failed at their responsibilities to protect children in their care, even if they were not technically mandated reporters under Pennsylvania law. Likewise, each individual has a certain degree of consumer power and responsibility to support businesses who treat their workers fairly, regardless of how much our "culture" or "society" inundates us with so many cheap, unethically made options. It's not always easy to discern the right choices, and I am far from an expert or a disciplined shopper. But to sit around waiting for the culture to change is to ignore our potential as actors within the culture. Our beliefs, our choices, and our habits might be the minority positions right now; but if we continue to spend our money responsibly, educate our neighbors, and demand action from our legislators, maybe one day "the culture" will no longer be an excuse for injustice.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Authenticity and the Art of the Philly Cheesesteak

First of all, good news for me: I was recently accepted into the Master of Arts in Cultural Sustainability (MACS) program at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. It's a limited residency program, which means I won't have to relocate (not yet, anyway), so I will keep on making good music with Steppin Razor and getting to know Philadelphia, a city I know far too little about for having lived right outside of it nearly my whole life. More importantly, I am looking forward to being in a program with other scholars from various backgrounds who have wrestled with some of the same questions I asked in my thesis, issues I plan to explore more deeply in the next few years: how do cultural properties (tangible or intangible) contribute to a common perception of collective identity? As a culture evolves, sharing and borrowing ideas and practices from other cultures, to what extent are cultural products "owned"? When tourists or anthropologists observe and participate in cultural activities, is the integrity or purity of the phenomenon compromised?

The recently established MACS program seems to have attracted scholars and professionals from several walks of life, and I expect that I will explore new topics and learn new skills while pursuing my own interests. I was very glad, however, to come across a discussion of authenticity on the MACS blog the other day. The title of the blog post is a perfect, succinct phrasing of one of my main interests: "When culture evolves, who decides what is 'authentic'?"

This morning, I finished a great book on this topic: Culture and Authenticity by Charles Lindholm. Click here for my short review on Goodreads. An anthropologist and professor at Boston University, Lindholm has written more on this topic, but this book is a great introduction to discourses of authenticity, and it is an informative, accessible read for non-anthropologists, as well. I believe it is important for anthropologists to learn how to communicate concepts for those who are unfamiliar with cultural studies, especially for those who think that "soft" sciences like ours should be moved to the back-burner until "the economy" turns around. So I have my own illustration that I use to help people understand the importance of this authenticity question. I hope you like it, even if you're not from my town.

In Philadelphia, we take a lot of pride in one particular food item, a sandwich that has traveled the world yet never dropped its birthplace from its name: the Philly Cheesesteak. When I lived in the Chicago area for a couple of years, I saw signs at a couple of restaurants claiming to serve Philly Cheesesteaks. McDonald's and Subway are among the restaurants who have attempted to reproduce the sandwich, using the Philly name; but if you're from where I'm from, you know just how bogus these cheesesteaks are. Even in our area, there is endless debate about where to get the "best" cheesesteak, and although this may sound like a matter of opinion or taste, people often take sides based on what is "real" or "authentic." For example, some say the roll must be made by Amoroso; others argue that Buono Bros. rolls are just as acceptable as Amoroso's; others still will tolerate any roll of comparable density and appearance. Similar diversity of opinion exists in debates over what kind of cheese is "supposed" to go on the cheesesteak, whether or not ketchup or hot sauce defile the sandwich, or if fried onions are mandatory. I know very few cheesesteak enthusiasts who claim that the best cheesesteak comes from Pat's or Geno's; however, the experience of eating at each of these rivals at the corner of 9th and Passyunk is something that every "real" Philadelphian must do, preferably at 3AM, one right after the other. Although we often get into belligerent arguments over our deeply held cheesesteak beliefs, feeding the stereotype of the rude, ignorant, fat Philadelphian, this sandwich does more to serve a collective identity than it does to divide Philadelphia into food-based factions. With the exception of vegetarians, any two individuals from Philly can bump into each other at a Quizno's in Albuquerque and exchange cynical remarks about the "Philly" cheesesteak, mutually longing for "the real thing" from back home. Even if that particular Quizno's flew in fresh rolls from Philly every morning, used the same cheese and the exact same methods as any given steak shop in Philly, something wouldn't "feel right" to those weary travelers.

Now that I've explained authenticity using a rather trivial example, try to imagine this phenomenon in the context of endangered ethnic groups, dying languages, and disappearing cultural practices. While it is difficult to imagine a cheesesteak debate escalating into urban warfare, history is full of violent conflict over racial and ethnic "purity," the protection of a "true" form of a religion, and nationalistic claims of "authentic" devotion to country. At the same time, perceptions of a "genuine" experience in tourism, music, art, and cuisine can boost entire industries, creating jobs for those whose cultures were nearly eradicated by colonial oppression. In the midst of these debates and their good and bad consequences, we all find ourselves seeking out our "true" identities, "authentic" experiences, "genuine" belonging. While these things, I suggest, are not necessarily objective realities, they can bring joy and comfort into our lives, reminding us that we are organic beings in a world that often feels cold and mechanical.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Prom Night for Wawas

I was on my way home from the grocery store yesterday afternoon/early evening when I passed not one but two stretch limousines, the big kind, Escalades or whatever. The second one was on my road, backing into a driveway, alongside of which were parked several cars.  After a couple of “what the heck” seconds, I recognized this tradition: it’s that thing where high school seniors all gather in somebody’s front yard so their parents can take pictures of them wearing tuxedos and dresses that they will never wear again. The dads all say, “Way to go, son!” and the moms all cry because they think this event signifies the passage of their offspring into responsible adulthood. After the camera batteries die, the boys awkwardly help their dates into the limo, and off they go to some expensive banquet hall, eat a mediocre meal, and dance to whatever kids think is music these days. It’s called “prom,” an ancient ritual that takes its name from a Cherokee word for “expensive.”

When I arrived at my driveway, I saw something much less elegant but equally intriguing. Our house is about a quarter mile from the road, and our driveway runs through our neighbor’s yard. The couple that moved into the house in front of ours a few years ago is comprised of the world’s crankiest woman and a man who is probably too scared to ditch her. If anyone’s car moves faster than 5 mph on our driveway, the woman screams bloody murder and catapults horse manure at them, so every time I come and go, I enjoy a very slow cruise past a pleasant pond on one side, a field with 2 beautiful horses on the other. By the pond, I almost always see a flock of Canada geese, or what the former inhabitants of this land, the Lenni Lenape people, used to call “wawa” – a catchy onomatopoeia that eventually became the namesake of our area’s most beloved, ubiquitous convenience store.

Well, last night, the adult wawas were running around frantically as I drove past them. They usually seem a bit scared of our big, noisy motor vehicles, and understandably so; but this was different. They weren’t just moving away from my gas-guzzling (not proud to say it) Blazer; they were running in several directions, heads turning left and right, honking/wawa-ing – I know it sounds weird coming from a non-ornithologist, but they looked more anxious than usual. Then I noticed something strange: the younglings were missing. The geese had produced a bunch of adorable little goslings just a few weeks ago, and just last week I noticed that these wawas were already in their adolescent stage: no longer cute, fuzzy, and yellow, but not yet the brown, black, and white birds of flight they will soon become. But last night I didn’t see a single one. Occasionally a fox will grab one and drag it off into the woods for teatime; but last night, there was not a single young goose in sight.

That’s when it hit me: maybe geese have proms of their own. Sure, they don’t rent limos and fancy clothes, and they probably don’t buy those flower things that girls wear on their wrists (do wings have wrists?) that match the boys’ corsages; but they probably swim down the creek, possibly with a chaperone or two, and do a more sexually unbridled style of dancing to whatever geese think is music – tree frogs and beetles playing the soundtrack of their little goosey lives. It’s their final fling before taking on the adult responsibilities of migration, finding their own fish, laying eggs and hissing at anything that comes anywhere near the nest. It’s a future that looks nowhere near as fun as college, so let’s hope they had the time of their lives last night.

Prom night for geese: maybe it’s another one of my dumb ideas; but if you’ve seen a wawa doing the waddle of shame this morning, now you know why.

Two chaperones escort young gosling Ryan out of the banquet hall after catching him with a flask of Grey Goose.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Whose Marley?

Marley, the new documentary by Kevin MacDonald, has finally been released today. I have been waiting for this day for quite some time, and I know I am not the only one: millions of Bob Marley fans all over the world are hailing the arrival of this film among rave reviews and high expectations for its accuracy and unique perspectives. According to the official website, MacDonald worked closely with Marley's friends and family to ensure that the late superstar's "definitive life story" is told through this work.

Of course, the release date is not without appropriate significance. 420 (April 20th) is a number often used by those who use cannabis (in particular, users who self-identity as smokers of the herb for any number of spiritual or political reasons) to signify a sort of... well, nobody knows, exactly. In fact, of the hundreds of habitual pot smokers I have known over the years, from all over the US, nobody seems to know exactly where this number came from. Yet it has taken on a great deal of significance for many cannabis users, for celebration, protest, and fellowship, articulating a perceived satival subculture every April 20th, and even twice a day when the clock says 4:20. Whether or not the number has a known origin, however, it has become a positive symbol for many people, and tonight they most likely will be enjoying the music of Bob Marley while partaking in the Legend's favorite herb.

My initial reaction upon reading of Marley's release date was an annoyed, cynical groan: of course these producers (or "reducers," to borrow a term from the Honorable Priest Kassa) would capitalize on juvenile trivializations of Bob, his Rastafari faith, and their sacramental herb. Marley was certainly known for smoking massive amounts of cannabis, but his was not an escapist use of the mind-altering plant: like many Rastafari, he believed that ganja is an aid for meditation. I have seen many herb-loving Marley fans posting excerpts of an interview in which the singer states, "The more you accept herb is the more you accept Rastafari." He goes on to condone smoking herb as an inspiration for rebellion against authority. In many other public statements and song lyrics, Marley praises ganja in no uncertain terms. In the interview clip below, however, he qualifies his endorsement of cannabis with some words of wisdom: "Too much of anything good for nothing, ya know? ... So, you have too much herb, it might hurt ya."

I can't help but wonder what Bob would think of millions of his fans setting a day aside to smoke a lot of herb and stare at black-light posters while listening to Rebelution, or to celebrate rebellion for rebellion's sake. Even more so, I wonder what he would think about a documentary on his life being released on this day in which "too much of one thing" is rationalized. Granted, the spirit of Rastafari is one of rebellion - in particular, a struggle against evil and oppressive institutions. But Marley's life was so much more than a promotion of an illegal substance, and I hope that this new film shows many of his admirers that Bob's struggle was about much more than getting stoned.

If you've seen the same internet I've seen today, the Marley quote you've seen the most is this one: "Herb is the healing of a nation; alcohol is the destruction." I'd like to close with a few of my personal-favorite Marley quotes, lyrics and statements that say more about his spiritual worldview. Some of these are, in fact, paraphrases of Bible verses; however, I have included them because, in my opinion, Bob had a special way with words, and he gave these proverbs new life for a new context.

"Don't forget your history, nor your destiny. In the abundance of water, the fool is thirsty." (from "Rat Race")

"If you get down and you quarrel every day, you're saying prayers to the devil, I say. Why not help one another on the way? Make it much easier." (from "Positive Vibration")

"Don't gain the world and lose your soul; wisdom is better than silver and gold." (from "Zion Train")

"Life is one big road with lots of signs, so when you're ridin' through the ruts, don't ya complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief, and jealousy. Don't bury your thoughts: put your vision to reality." (from "Wake Up and Live")

"Only a fool lean upon his own misunderstanding. And then what has been hidden from the wise and the prudent, been revealed to the babe and the suckling." (from "Forever Loving Jah")

"I don't stand for the black man's side. I don't stand for the white man's side. I stand for God's side." (from an interview)

"The man live uptown, you can go to bed early because you have a bed, you know, and your place around you might clean, which is good for you, but that don't stop your spiritual awareness from knowing sufferation. If the spirit don't right, the flesh suffer regardless of where you live. I mean you couldn't tell me the Prime Ministers or the Presidents is living that good. You might have all everything and go live in a big [white] house; but take up any sufferer and put him there, see if him no suffer the same. There's no big life anywhere, man - everybody suffering today. True, cho. Tension, tension come you know. Toothpaste make people fight - toothpaste." (from an interview, 9/18/1980)

Bob Marley reading a Bible, wearing an Ethiopian Coptic cross,
and sporting a mane of dreadlocks - all symbolic of his deep Rasta faith
Please share your favorite Bob Marley quotes, lyrics, facts, or opinions! I realize that we all appreciate Bob's life and music for different reasons, and your ganja-centric version of the man may be just as valid as my perception of him as a more spiritually disciplined visionary. No disrespect to any of you 420 observers was intended in my comments above - this has been all in good fun!

And let me know your thoughts on the movie. I hope to watch it tonight!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

High Priest George Irons on Reggae Music, Bob Marley

Bob Marley had a birthday earlier this month, and with another documentary about his life coming in April and receiving a lot of attention, I thought it would be a good time to share some remarks on Marley's faith and musical career, courtesy of a highly regarded Rasta ancient, or elder who has been with the movement for many years.

In November 2011, I had the privilege of conducting a very brief interview with Ras George Irons, High Priest of the Nyahbinghi Order, at his home in rural Jamaica. As this was part of my research project, I tried to keep my questions focused on the topic of white participation in reggae music. It may have been because he was tired, because the Sabbath binghi was approaching, or because he considered his answers to be common sense, but some of his responses were very short - sometimes just a "Yes." As you'll notice, however, he perks up a bit when I mention Bob Marley, a source of pride for elders such as Priest George, who "taught Bob everything him knew about Rastafari," as he told me when I first met him.

Another interesting moment in this interview is near the end of the video. One of my questions was in regards to how authentic is a performance of reggae perceived to be when the performer does not bear the appearance of the oppressed Rastaman or African, whose collective experience of struggle is said to be the inspiration behind the music. Priest George, like someone else I interviewed on the same topic, responded in a way that addressed both my occupation as musician and my role in the conversation as researcher. I have written a bit more about this in my thesis, but for the sake of this blog post, I just want to draw attention to the priest's suggestion that music and research are ways in which non-black, non-Rasta individuals can "enter into the struggle."

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bongo Trevor (part 2)

I forgot that I had promised a follow-up post to the previous post about Bongo Trevor Campbell (aka Ras Gabre Selassie). In the following clip, he sings "Ethiopia, Thou Land of Our Fathers," considered by many Rastafari to be their "I-ficial" anthem. In fact, the original version of the song was considered "the anthem of the Negro race" according to Marcus Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in their "Declaration of the Rights of the Negro Peoples of the World" in 1920. The lyrics of a Rastafarian adaptation, similar to what Bongo Trevor sings in the video below, can be found here: Also included on this link is the the Royal Ethiopian Creed, most of which is recited starting around 10:10 in the video. At the end of the binghi gatherings and other Rasta events I have attended, this anthem and creed have been sung and recited, but I have yet to see another individual chant and beat the fundeh with nearly as much passion as Bongo Trevor displays in the final moments of this clip.

This song and creed effectively characterize a struggle for balance between pan-African nationalism and universal human Inity (unity) that I have analyzed in the statements of several Rasta bredren and sistren. Prayerful appeals to the Emperor, biblical references linking the African diaspora to the ancient Israelites and imagining Ethiopia as Mount Zion reveal a sense of African identity, and it might be inferred that the "tyrants" and "enemies" mentioned are characterizations of the diaspora's non-African oppressors of recent history: namely, European and American slaveowners and politicians, black and white alike. But these oft-recited lines also command righteousness, forgiveness, and love. While Bongo Trevor's statements in the following interview excerpt are not representative of every Rastafarian, they demonstrate how Rasta teachings might lead one toward a unique sort of nationalism in which externally imposed racial categories, formerly perceived according to subjectivities of geography and religious history, are re-imagined in broader, more inclusive terms.

Trevor: have to think big like His Majesty.  The world is the home of humanity.  And the world is divided into various sections and nations and people.  And what the people must do is learn to live with respect for each other according to his philosophy and his culture.  Because the twelve tribes of Israel and the three nations coming from one nation, which was founded on the bank of the River Nile, and the Nile Valley, which is Ethiopian.  And Ethiopia is the land of the blacks.  But through climatical conditions… inhabitants of different areas and cultures must develop a change in complexion and so on and so forth.  But they’re human beings.  It’s not easy to come to that after being taught about the hatred and discrimination and segregation over the years.  It’s hard fi say that me and you are the same human together.  And it mostly causin’ from people of your side that is lookin’ on the blacker people on my side and say that we are inferior, and they are a super race.
I appreciated his roundabout way of distinguishing between resentment of a particular race, and resentment of an ideology propagated by certain members of that race.  Here, I felt I could benefit from a definition of Babylon in his own words.
Trevor: Babylon.  Mystery Babylon.  There are certain people who feel like dem control the world… that dem should hold [others] in slavery.  As I said, a super race, super nation…. The white man always want expand and expand and expand and have dominion over earth.  I don’t know where him get that concept from, but that is the way with him anywhere him go…. That is the way I see Babylon: want to take other people’s belongings, by any means necessary, you use to get what you want.
Me: So this Babylon… that wants power and control over other man… why do you think it’s normally instigated by European, American, typically white cultures?
Trevor: Because they are the instruments of the Babylon system.  They are the ones that keep the Babylon system going.  All nation like your nation… are set up to keep the system superior.  We know that.  But what can we do?  What can we do?  We have to make you know seh we know what you’re up to!  Ya understand?  We know what you’re up to.  But that can’t stop what is to be.  What is to be must be!  The truth haffi flow like oil.  Ya understand, Ben?
Me: So you’re not returning hate for hate?
Trevor: No!  That don’t put you nowhere!  That don’t put you nowhere!  It belikkle your dignity.  No patriot, no man of divinity, spirituality, ever employ the slightest thought of hate within him, ya understand?  Because [hate] is the enemy of righteousness.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bongo Trevor Campbell

I haven't blogged much lately, mostly because the holidays were busy, but also because I've been reading a lot. The good news is that the books I've picked up recently are giving me a lot of ideas for topics to write about in the future. The not good (but not necessarily bad) news is that it will still be a while before I post another blog. My reading is giving me so many ideas, I don't really know where to start.

Until I figure out that minor problem, I'm going to try and post some videos from Jamaica from time to time. The clip below is from a kind Rastaman who welcomed me into his gates for my first interview. Bongo Trevor, aka Ras Gabre Selassie, is a Rasta in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church in Kingston. As President-in-Command of the Rastafari Orthodox Patriotic Unity (ROPU), he longs to see the Rasta movement "organise and centralise" in order to bring the African diaspora closer to its goal of repatriation to its home continent. In my reasoning with Bongo Trevor and Bongo Shephan Fraser, I heard some emotionally conveyed stories about Haile Selassie's 1966 visit to Jamaica. What Trevor neglected to tell me, perhaps out of humility, is that he was one of thirty-two Rastafari brethren to receive a medal of goodwill from Selassie at a private reception during the emperor's visit. I have heard this from a most reliable source, and I believe Bongo Trevor can be seen at 8:58 in this video about the 1966 event: HIM Haile Selassie I Visit To Jamaica April 21 1966

Ras Gabre Selassie also makes binghi drums in his workshop. The following video is of him and Bongo Shephan chanting in Trevor's yard. I will post part 2 in a few days, in which they chant "Ethiopia, Land of our Fathers," considered by many to be the Rastafari anthem. Fulljoy.