issue 228 - February 1992
Apocalypse '91 - The Enemy Strikes Black
by Public Enemy
The History of Our Future
by Black Rock Coalition
One of the enduring images of rap is of an extended bulletin board, a network of news and polemic operating in opposition to formal channels. The West Coast school of street rap has presented itself as reportage, covering the facts of violence without bowdlerizing them. In the words of NWA: 'Whatever goes on we gonna talk about it. Like underground reporters.'
Part of this network feeling comes from Public Enemy, whose records present themselves as instalments in a continuous news service. Public Enemy have never been a band so much as an organization, whether they choose to present themselves as a news service, a media corporation like any would-be multinational, or as an army. The last has always been their most disturbing aspect, from the ode to sub-machine guns on their debut album to the naval whites worn here by their back-up squad. The stance is made abundantly clear in the LP's opening words: 'The future holds nothing but confrontation'.
Yet for all the diehard attitude-striking, Apocalypse '91 sees Public Enemy developing a more cautious sense of public responsibility than they have usually shown. In the past they have revelled in stances of extreme sexism (now left to the likes of lce-T and NWA) and anti-Semitism, explicit in the statements of since-dismissed member Professor Gruff.
Politically, Apocalypse '91 is no less committed than their earlier work, and no less confrontational although its educational intent seems curiously well-mannered compared to the vehemence of Ice Cube, whose current LP sleeve has him glowering over Uncle Sam on a morgue slab.
It may be that Public Enemy are learning to live with the corporate ethic - the inner sleeve of Apocalypse features a prominent ad for hats and T-shirts. Like any 1990s pop group, Public Enemy at once parody and collude with the organization that sells them.
But there is a need for other types of organization in US black music and The History of Our Future attempts just that. The sounds and images of rap form just as much a stereotype as other black musics have in the past and 'rock' has always been off the agenda for black musicians as far as record companies are concerned. The Black Rock Coalition (BRC) was formed in 1985 as a support organization for musicians who, in the words of co-founder Greg Tate, played the music 'pioneered by the unholy and underpaid trinity of Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry'. The intent is to reclaim rock as black music.
This collection of BRC tracks is disappointing in that much of the music is pedestrian bar band stuff. But then these bar bands should get the same shot at a record contract as their white counterparts. The outstanding tracks are still the ones which use non-rock musics such as jazz or funk. Patchy as it is, History presents a potent manifesto and suggests a viable alternative for the corporate ethic that Public Enemy appear to be so comfortable with.
Hors la Vie
directed by Maroun Bagdadi
Maroun Bagdadi's film may seem exceptionally timely from the box-office point of view but it was completed well before the recent freeing of the Lebanese hostages. It is based on the true-life experiences of Roger Auque (here renamed Patrick Perrault), a French freelance journalist taken hostage in Beirut in January 1987 and released in November of that year. Hors la Vie covers Perrault's experience from the time just prior to his capture to his eventual - and slightly farcical - release. The film puts his experience in a context without ever really explaining that context because, it suggests, the complexity of the Lebanese conflict is beyond explanation.
At the beginning we see some of the events that Perrault reports on - a demonstration by grief-stricken women holding photos of men who have disappeared, a mother intervening in a shooting and sending home a contrite firing squad. The film starts much like a standard war-zone reporter movie - along the lines of Under Fire or Salvador - but then takes off into a different area.
At first Perrault wonders what the fighting is about; then he realizes the impossibility of interpreting it. At first he is told that he is to be exchanged for a Lebanese man held in France on drugs charges; then he learns there is no such man. He meets one of his captors who has fought on virtually every side in the battle but who still believes: 'Today, with Islam, we'll change the world'. As the rules and names change and certainties are pulled from under Perrault's feet, the suggestion is that his captors are as much in the dark ('out of life', as the title has it) as he is.
Bagdadi, a Lebanese director working in France, avoids the traps inherent in trying to make the captors real characters while showing the brutality of their methods. He concentrates on the concrete facts of his hero's ordeal (played by Hippolyte Girardot) while setting a context that makes it clear that the Lebanese people are continuing their own comparable sufferings outside his cell. It is in the nature of the film that the issues behind the story can only be hinted at. But the fact that these issues are clearly wider than the sufferings of the hero is something that a comparable Hollywood movie could never hope to communicate.
African Radio Plays
edited by Wolfram Frommlet
These plays were never intended to be read, let alone conceptualized as a collection. But they throw into powerful relief some of the pressing concerns of the worrying world of 1990s Africa from the rural-urban divide to post-colonialism, from AIDS to the position of women.
The most striking recurring theme is the lack of opportunity Africans have for free expression - an opportunity ironically afforded by the plays themselves. The African poet in Malawian Marvin Hanke's The Unfinished Mission complains of the 'distorted picture of Africa' in the West where 'you people have more social evils than us'. While Martin Gumba's Listen has Kenyans taking steps to gain more influence over the world media there is a didactic element to most of the plays, reflecting the power of radio as a means of reaching people - particularly in illiterate or inaccessible areas - and also the morally educative role of oral traditions from which African radio plays borrow a great deal. At times the confines of a short radio play are clearly inadequate to hold the enormous frustrations and sentiments that they try to express.
However these moments of propaganda rarely last and some works rise above this level altogether. This is most obviously true when 'English' English is juxtaposed with or even replaced by a more idiomatic usage, as in the powerful and flowing diction of the Nigerian/Sierra Leone collaborative work The Messenger with its mixture of different dialects. It is an example of how radio drama, in both the North and the South, can provide a chance to escape the cultural censorship that is only too present in other forms of radio.
The playwright who manages most successfully to combine message with writing skill is James Patrick Ochieng-Odero, in Beer, a play about the frightening spread of AIDS, and Mad King-Beggar of the Bus Park, which has a nightmarish view of a modern-day Kenya in which businessled development fights with ancestral wisdom.
It is important not to define these plays as simply 'about' a certain subject. There is often a wealth of subtle and complex layers of meaning here. As film-maker Sembene Ousmane has said: 'We have heard what you have said and understood what you have not said'.
Published in Germany by Nomos Verlags- gesellschaft, Poatfach 610, 7570 Baden-Baden.
Reviews editor: Chris Brazier
Did you ever have a teacher who made history come alive? Who made you feel like you were there, laughing and crying with the human tragedy and human comedy? No? Well, neither did I and neither did Eduardo Galeano, author of three stunning books of history from the Americas.
In the preface to his trilogy, Memory of Fire, Galeano writes, 'they taught us about the past so that we should resign ourselves with drained consciences to the present: not to make history, which was already made, but to accept it'. With that the Uruguayan writer sets out to 'rescue the kidnapped memory of all America...'
I have read much of Galeano's work and planned to skim over a few chapters to write this review. It was I who was kidnapped, enthralled like a child at the cinema for the first time. Readers should not be intimidated by the three volumes and 800 pages. Galeano writes this history in bite-sized pieces, recounting each episode in a page, more or less.
The first volume, Genesis, begins with the legends and creation stories of the Indians; Galeano calls this section 'First Voices'. This sets the scene for the arrival of the Europeans, 500 years ago in 'The Old New World'. The second volume, Faces and Masks, takes us to the end of the nineteenth century and the final book, Century of Wind, brings us to the present. The trilogy is a work of sadness and longing written during Galeano's exile from his native Uruguay and the narrative appropriately ends in 1984 when his own exile ended.
These explorers, conquistadors and pirates sought and found wonders. The reader does too. Days of infamy, days of justice. Outrage, humour, hope, anger and passion. Racism and greed. Apartheid and slavery. Conmen and gunmen. Defiance and revolution.
The characters include Tupac Amaru, Cortez, Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Benjamin Franklin, Geronimo, Calamity Jane, Sandino, Castro, and John Lennon. Yet here are not only the big names. All of the Americas, North and South, are drawn into the story, showing the change and continuity of the millions of rivers of history that each individual and community has made. Galeano shines the light of history on these unknown actors.
Most of those who show up in history books, even these, are men. Galeano knows this and after telling fascinating tales of Benjamin Franklin, he focuses on Franklin's sister, Jane. Her story, or at least as much of it as is known, was of a life of hard labour and childbearing. Galeano ironically concludes: 'Benjamin, founder of a nation of inventors, is a great man of all the ages. Jane is a woman of her age, like almost all women of all ages... Her case will awaken no interest in historians.'
It might sound as though Memory of Fire covers most of the past 500 years of history, but don't go looking for the date the Chaco War ended. 'Official Latin American history,' writes Galeano, 'boils down to a military parade of bigwigs in uniforms fresh from the dry cleaners. Look for the dates in an almanac and keep this to sample like a classic collection of short stories.
This is Gabriel Garcia Marquez' magical realism applied to history. The visions of the past march before us like the great historical paintings of the Mexican muralists. And it is refreshing to encounter a writer of history making no claim to be objective. 'Unable to distance myself, I take sides... and I am not sorry.' But each episode is documented and he cites sources for every fact.
We need history like this to put ourselves and our own struggles into context. We need to understand that even the least important among us are part of history. The current argument over Columbus is a critical example. Question the achievement of Columbus in colonizing the New World and you might be in danger of also questioning the New World Order of today. Writing in the UK's Independent newspaper under a headline 'Don't spoil the birthday with modem value judgements,' author Hunter Davies recently said, '...oppression seems to be the nature of Man (sic).' It seems Mr Davies advocates the kind of history Galeano and I received in school.
Writing in The Guardian, Hans Koning, a biographer of Columbus, said the controversy 'is about the way in which we - the whites, the victors - look at and write our own history and teach it to our children.' Koning asks for 'a new look at history, a move away from our smug Eurocentric view.'
Eduardo Galeano, a child of the new race created by this epic collision between the Old World and the New World, tells us that history in Memory of Fire.
Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano. (Pantheon US, Mothuen UK.)