Guess Who’s Coming to Dharma: Black Women Embrace Western Buddhism

In the half-century since Buddhism re-entered American pop culture via the Beats (having first enjoyed a passing vogue during the 1890s), more and more black females–children of the civil rights movement, champions of black nationalism, feminist iconoclasts, and intellectuals–have been finding their way to Buddhist practice. Quietly, without much visibility or commercial fanfare, these women meditate daily, then take the insights they receive “on the cushion” into their lives as mothers, mates, social activists, and career women. From Tina Turner’s autobiographical hat-tip to Nichiren Shoshu to bell hooks’s describing her personal synthesis of Buddhist meditation, Christian prayer, and Sufi mysticism in 1999’s Remembered Rapture to Alice Walker’s outing of herself as a practitioner last year in The New York Times, black women have unwittingly become the world’s most spontaneous lay Buddhist preachers. Continue reading “Guess Who’s Coming to Dharma: Black Women Embrace Western Buddhism”

Pretty Persuasion: Going for the Girl Market

If you passed Trina Robbins on the street, chances are you wouldn’t suspect she was the foremost pop historian of women in comics. Nor would you peg her as the author of Go Girl!, an offbeat superhero comic book aimed at adolescent girls. Today most comic books featuring female protagonists are written by men and depend heavily on the fetishized sex and violence that give television hits like Xena and Buffy a certain cross-gender appeal. But Robbins–whose last major mainstream effort was a Wonder Woman comic about domestic violence–is fighting to prove the commercial viability of comic books that neither burlesque nor hyper-sexualize their female characters. Continue reading “Pretty Persuasion: Going for the Girl Market”

Higher Ground

When it comes to commercial black music, “high concept” makes the record industry very nervous. Motown initially told Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye that people wouldn’t like their political songs. Stax told Isaac “Black Moses” Hayes that radio wouldn’t play his 16-minute album tracks. Today, for every breakthrough iconoclast like Erykah Badu or Lauryn Hill there are thousands of artists whose attempts to explore spirituality, politics, or “healing your inner child” through music have stopped their careers dead in (and with) their tracks. So I’d like to devote this space to three recent releases that pursue an artistic vision too pure to rely on trendy guest stars, currently fashionable producers, or the sample-loop du jour — black music which dares to, shall we say, elevate the range of sounds and ideas aimed at mainstream black radio. Continue reading “Higher Ground”

Are We the World? Global Music in the U.S. Faces the 21st Century

Sony Music’s recent and massive Soundtrack of a Century collection includes a two-CD set called International Music, ostensibly to celebrate the geographically diverse roots of the recording industry. After all, donkeys were used to haul demo cylinder recordings around Russia in the late 1880s, and the Columbia Phonograph Company General established its first Parisian offices in 1897. But what these two discs really are is a sampling of rather newly signed potential crossover acts from Sony divisions around the globe. Clearly, someone corporate hopes that multilingual exotics like Taiwan’s Coco Lee, Denmark’s Eurasian duo S.O.A.P, and the Filipino funk trio Kulay might have what it takes to follow Ricky Martin up American pop charts. Unfortunately, the collection represents a very late and strangely halfhearted leap into a world music market that has gotten increasingly viable in the U.S. over the past 20 years. You would think that Sony, an intrepid Japanese multinational that acquired the master catalog and 100-plus-year-old legacy of Columbia Records on the cusp of the ’90s, would be leading the pack by now in marketing foreign pop stars in America. But like most major labels–and unlike an increasing number of U.S.-based indies–Sony has proven reluctant to throw its full promotional weight behind world music as something as worthy and universally important as Anglo-American pop. Continue reading “Are We the World? Global Music in the U.S. Faces the 21st Century”

Erotic City

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue
By Samuel R. Delany
New York University Press, 203 pp., $19.95
Bread and Wine
By Samuel R. Delany and Mia Wolff
Juno, 55 pp., $14.99 paper

Samuel R. Delany never ceases to surprise his readers, mainly because he writes astonishingly well about almost anything. Convinced that both “high” and “low” culture are equally valid as pedagogic tools, his two newest projects include a unified duet of academic essays and an underground comic book: Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, a fairly sober set of sociological musings from an elite university press, and Bread and Wine, a pornographic graphic novel from the publisher of the avant-pop Re/Search series. Don’t be fooled by the seeming incongruity of this two-fisted literary assault. Because no matter how different their respective formats, both books are about mainstream society’s queasy approach to issues of sex, race, and class. Continue reading “Erotic City”

Surf Pop: The New Wave

WAS ANY underground music more quickly and thoroughly mediated by outside forces than surf music? On the cusp of the ’60s, California’s coastal teen subculture was still a-borning when major movie and record companies swooped down to claim their percentage. Yet in spite of the gold rush, there were still enough obscure, self-taught SoCal rockers left to keep a wild strain of instrumental surf pop alive. Garage bands started trying to steal surf music back from the corporate philistines beginning with the manic protopunk performance of the Pyramids in the film Bikini Beach. But not until 30 years later, with the equally subversive deployment in Pulp Fiction of classic surf instrumentals like “Miserlou” and “Surf Rider,” could the surf-punk movement feel vindicated by mainstream recognition of what it was really trying to do. Continue reading “Surf Pop: The New Wave”

Bernard Edwards, 1952-1996

Bernard Edwards, Tony Thompson, and Nile Rodgers were in Tokyo for the latest in a recent series of reunion concerts when Rodgers discovered his friend and ex-partner lying dead in his hotel room on April 18. By all accounts Edwards was feeling fine right up to the moment he went to bed the night before, when he complained of dizziness and nausea. The multitalented 43-year-old musician never woke up, leaving behind a wife, children, and a world of friends and fans. Continue reading “Bernard Edwards, 1952-1996”

Isaac Hayes: We Like Ike

As an opinionated teen in the early ’70s, I hated Barry White for stealing Isaac Hayes’s sound — even though by 1973 Hayes had evolved so far beyond the gravel-voiced love god of his late-’60s recordings that he wouldn’t have begrudged White or anybody else their assumption of his earlier incarnations Cotton picker, meat packer, singer, writer, producer, corporate executive, community activist, actor — Hayes has worn an astonishing array of hats. After cutting through the first half of his life like a diamond through a sack of glass (going from Stax to his own ABC-distributed label to Columbia), Hayes hit some kind of creative wall and all but disappeared under the weight of his own legend. “I had a renegade mentality,” Hayes admits. “I always dared to go where other people said: “you can’t go there.” But at one [point] I looked around and all I was hearing was me, and people trying to be me. And I started to worry about it.” Like many high-profile overachievers, Hayes ultimately chose to step away from the spotlight for awhile. Continue reading “Isaac Hayes: We Like Ike”

Prince: The Most Inscrutable Cocktease in the World

Warner Bros.

If you hear the sound of a gauntlet slapping the floor, it’s only the echo of Come (Warner Bros.) and 1-800-New-Funk (NPG/Bellmark) hitting the racks of your local record retailer. Both are excellent albums, and each arrives at the “wrecka-stow” from theoretically competing labels. I mean, the guy folks used to call Prince has put WB on notice. In February, while trying to resolve some ongoing contractual disputes with his friends at Warners, he released a single through the black-owned independent label Bellmark. Now, still resentful over pressure to dump the Paisley Park imprint and make more predictably commercial music, his royal badness returns in the wake of a comprehensive greatest hits package that all but buried his baroque symbol album and drops his two most accessible and ideologically cohesive LPs since Dirty Mind. Continue reading “Prince: The Most Inscrutable Cocktease in the World”

Lee Perry & Maxi Priest: Reggae Redux

THIS YEAR’S New Music Seminar featured a panel called “Reggae in the ’90s: Does Dancehall Rule?” Both Jamaican and New York’s regional enthusiasm for dancehall were thus brought to an internal forum for the first time, and the mainstream recording industry had to take notice. Not only have dancehall singles penetrated all sorts of New York nightclubs, but local black radio has been slipping them into their mix shows and drivetime programming for more than a year. Although this Jamaican music trend is considered a subset of Jamaican music, most attempts to define dancehall and how it differs from “reggae” somehow miss the mark. Continue reading “Lee Perry & Maxi Priest: Reggae Redux”