New sounds and old stories

December 17, 2015

'Tis the season to discover some new music to listen to or learn about--so asked writers, musicians and just plain fans about the music(s) they've been listening to, reading about, going to see and otherwise enjoying. Just in time for investigating over the holidays, here are their sonorous suggestions.

Khury Petersen-Smith contributor

Shortly after the rise of the punk movement, the anarcho-punk band Crass declared it over with their song "Punk is dead." Ever since, waves of punk have come and gone, rising from local scenes, with bands achieving national and international fame and mainstream hearings, and then reviving in new forms in basement shows and local venues. It seems that as long as this society produces alienation, war and oppression, musicians and artists will respond with furious and creative rejections of it.

Recent years have seen a new wave of feminist punk emerge. Its spirit has been shaped by the catastrophic state of oppression--including the presence of oppressive ideas and behavior in the punk scene--as well as resistance movements, like the Slutwalks and more recently Black Lives Matter. Political influences include feminist scholars like bell hooks and Audre Lorde, and earlier feminist bands like X-Ray Spex and the heroes of 1990s Riot Grrl movement serve as inspiration.

Victoria Ruiz performing with Downtown Boys
Victoria Ruiz performing with Downtown Boys

Whereas connecting radical politics and activism with music had fallen out of favor in punk scenes around the country, many of the bands and other participants today talk openly about supporting struggles for justice and not tolerating sexism, homophobia, transphobia and racism in the scene.

This development is one artistic and musical expression of the growing popular opposition to oppression. It has opened up a new round of conversation about queer politics, anti-racism, sexism and sexual violence, and other matters of oppression and resistance in countless DIY-produced and -distributed zines, as well as punk fixtures like the zine Maximumrocknroll.

The year 2015 was a significant one for releases in this latest wave. Here are three records to check out.

Downtown Boys is a Providence-based band whose energetic performances and relentless touring have earned them a loyal following so enthusiastic that Rolling Stone and even the Washington Post have taken notice. Known for dance rhythms made with saxophones, guitar and no-holds-barred drumming, bilingual lyrics that unapologetically confront oppression and declare pride in being people of color, and their fierce frontwoman Victoria Ruiz, Downtown Boys released their first full-length album, Full Communism, this year. It is well worth a listen. The explosive energy of Downtown Boys' performances can eclipse the fact that their members are really skilled musicians--something that shines through on the record.

Next is The Blackest Eye, a release from Brooklyn's Aye Nako. The band's performances combine pop-punk energy with relaxed vocals. The EP features lyrics that are heartfelt, bitter and honest. With rich guitar and mid-tempo songs, The Blackest Eye feels like an indie-pop record with punk ethos.

Last but far from least is Sweetie, the much-awaited full-length record from Boston's Tomboy. The band takes riot grrl attitude and pop sensibilities to produce music that feels reminiscent of great bands past, and is at the same time fresh and new. Their lyrics, which talk about being dismissed as an all-female band, and unwanted attention and touch from men, combine with catchy delivery to make for perfect feminist anthems. With their fun and unabashedly political performances, they've won a dedicated following in Boston and beyond.

Matt Swagler

SW contributor and member of the band The Fucking Ocean

I've been recently trying to catch up with some recent hip-hop coming out of the West African country of Senegal.

Author Rosalind Fredericks estimates that there are 4,000 hip-hop groups active in Senegal, with most found in the poorer neighborhoods of the capital of Dakar, a city of just over 1 million people.

In 2011, some young hip-hop artists, joined by journalists and friends, came together and created a group called Y'en a Marre, French for "enough is enough" or "we're fed up." They formed during one of the regular electricity blackouts that take place in Dakar, as a forum to challenge the government's neglect of the city's more destitute neighborhoods. In Senegal, the median age is 18, and by bringing music and rhymes to public gatherings, street corners and local concerts, Y'en a Marre members attempted to engage with their young neighbors about what they wanted to see changed.

Shortly after the group was created, then-President Abdoulaye Wade went back on his promise to step down after two terms and attempted to change the constitution to make it easier to win a third term and set up his son as his successor. Initially supported by many young Senegalese when he was first elected in 2000, Wade lost this support through his actions as president--selling off public space, bringing in high-end commercial developments, building tollways inaccessible to most people, attacking street vendors and spending $27 million on the "African Renaissance Monument."

Y'en a Marre members began to mobilize city residents to challenge Wade. They decided not to align with any political party and, as a result, became mediators between a divided opposition. The young rappers of Y'en a Marre suddenly found themselves at the center of public demonstrations against Wade. As they became spokespeople and their song verses became the slogans and chants of the protests, some were arrested by the government and targeted by Wade's security forces.

In response, members of Y'en a Marre put out the song "Faux! Pas Forcé." Rhyming in Wolof (the most commonly known language in Senegal), they responded to the government's violence--which eventually killed 10 protesters--with angry verses directed at Wade, like this one from Kilifeu:

We will be present, you old thug
You won't be able to face a people standing
You have plundered all of our property and you want to carry away the last penny
We'll uproot you before you fleece us.

The lyrics and striking video for "Faux! Pas Forcé" galvanized the opposition movements in the streets--first defeating Wade's attempt to change the constitution, then unseating him in the 2012 election. Since the election, Y'en a Marre members have guarded their political independence, with artists coming together to create the public campaign and song "Dox ak sag ox," Wolof for "Walk with your neighborhood."

As rappers Djily Bagdad and Thiat describe, the song and video encourages Senegalese to confront local politicians and force them to address the social problems and decrepit infrastructure of their neighborhoods. The song pulls back from the rage of "Faux! Pas Forcé," but the tight verses and political urgency remain, over addictive samples and a catchy refrain.

Y'en a Marre has inspired similar movements of hip-hop artists in the region--most importantly, the Balai Citoyen (Citizen's Broom) in Burkina Faso, which played a key role in ousting Blaise Compaoré in 2014 after 27 years in power.

The story of some of the rappers in Y'en a Marre was recently told by MTV's Rebel Music series, in a frenetically paced 20-minute documentary--and an accessible introductory article by Janette Yarwood, complete with clips, videos, and photos. A good starting place for digging deeper into the rich Senegalese hip-hop scene.

Alexander Billet

Editor, Red Wedge magazine

Groove: An Aesthetic of Measured Time by Mark Abel is by far the most important recently published book for anyone hoping to understand popular music from the standpoint of radical critical theory.

This is by no means an easy read; it is full of deep Marxist analysis of the common rhythmic characteristics defining contemporary popular music. It also, crucially, examines how it is that the rise of industrial capitalism has reshaped our conception of time, in turn giving rise to these same rhythmic elements. Though Brill published the hardback edition last year, the book is now out in paperback through Haymarket's Historical Materialism series (and for a price you can afford without selling important bodily fluids).

Anyone looking for a bit more of a detailed synopsis of the book can read the review of it that I wrote this past summer. But succinctly, what makes Groove such an important (even groundbreaking) contribution is that, in contextualizing music's actual sound, it reveals that the division between the "popular" and the experimental or avant-garde is far less impenetrable than we might believe.

One walks away from the book with a much richer understanding, therefore, of the linkage between musical innovation and political resistance. What's more, it reaffirms the centrality of a vibrant radical cosmopolitanism in forging that resistance.

In that spirit, if you haven't yet listened to Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly or Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress, both released this year, then a re-evaluation of your life's choices is probably in order.

Nicole Colson journalist

My first pick is Sound and Color by Alabama Shakes. The follow-up to the band's breakout album Boys and Girls, this effort finds lead singer Brittany Howard delivering Curtis Mayfield-style vocals over a 1970s-inspired soul landscape. Howard wields her vocals--including a piercing falsetto--like a knife. Standout tracks include "Don't Wanna Fight," about love, heartbreak, struggle and fatigue that starts off with a James Brown-like wail, with Howard singing: "Living ain't no fun / The constant dedication / Keeping the water and power on / There ain't no money left / Why can't I catch my breath? / I'm gonna work myself to death."

My favorite track on the album, however, is "Future People," a soulful exhortation to look a little bit down the road. "Children, take a living / Gotta keep up. / You got to give a little, get a little / And see it like future people," she sings.

My second suggestion is a heavy pick for a heavy year (how much longer until the election's over?). Suite is a four-song EP by the Columbia, Missouri-based New Tongues. "Loud" as a descriptor for bands doesn't always translate to "good," but the New Tongues make you believe that the price of a little long-term hearing loss is worth it in the service of rocking your socks off.

Eliciting comparisons to bands like Chicago's Shellac, aggressive bass lines, distortion and driving vocals dominate the four-song EP, which clocks in at 22 minutes of post-hardcore intensity.

The opening track "Suicide Nets" is a deft, though indirect, musical meditation on the kind of alienation that caused a rash of suicides by workers at the Foxconn plant in Shenzhen, China. After 14 workers killed themselves, people began to wonder why those making components for some of the most profitable companies in the world could be driven to such despair. (The answer lies in the question itself--with workers' misery and corporate profits going hand in hand.) "Where does it end? Where to begin?" comes the question at the song's end.

By comparison, the album's last song--a cover of "El Condor Pasa," made famous by Simon and Garfunkel--is almost lighthearted. While I never much believed Paul Simon when he claimed he'd "rather be a hammer than a nail," with the New Tongues, I don't have any doubt.

Further Reading

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