Thursday, May 30, 2013

My Op-ed on Music and Storytelling in the New York Times


The Day the Music Died in Mali

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EVERYONE has heard of censored songs, like Billie Holiday’s “Love for Sale,” which was banned from ABC radio in 1956 because of its prostitution theme. Most are familiar with the censorship of artists, like the Dixie Chicks, who had their music blacklisted from country music stations across the country after they criticized President George W. Bush. But banning music in its entirety?
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It has been almost nine months since Islamic militants in northern Maliannounced that they were effectively banning all music. It’s hard to imagine, in a country that produced such internationally renowned music as Ali Farka Touré’s bluesRokia Traoré’s soulful vocals and the Afro-pop traditions of Salif Keita.
The armed militants sent death threats to local musicians; many were forced into exile. Live music venues were shut down, and militants set fire to guitars and drum kits. The world famous Festival in the Desert was moved to Burkina Faso, and then postponed because of the security risk.
While French and Malian forces largely swept the militants from Timbuktu and other northern towns early this year, the region is still a battleground. Cultural venues remain shuttered. Even more musicians in the north are now leaving the country because they fear vengeful acts by the Malian Army, whom they accuse of discriminating against northern peoples. The music has not returned to what it once was.
There are many theories for the reasons behind the music ban. Some point to religious fanaticism that sees music as a distraction from single-minded devotion. Others suggest that the ban was an attempt to sabotage the economy by gutting one of Mali’s primary export industries. Perhaps the militants, who cut off the hands of thieves and whip those who drink alcohol, just wanted to terrorize people.
Regardless, the ban — like banning the air we breathe, some Malians have said — can tell us something about the nature of music itself as the essence of our social bonds and a bulwark against unfettered use of power.
Musicians are present in many of the rituals of daily life in Mali. The traditional praise singers known as griots sing and play at weddings, birth ceremonies and funerals. But their role is not just to provide background entertainment. Yacouba Sissoko, a Malian griot known for his mastery of the ngoni, a stringed instrument, and the “talking drum,” which mimics human speech, told me that the griot is a “person who creates cohesion between people, a kind of cement in Malian society.” Music is a language that communicates what we cannot always say in words; it assures us of our interconnection.
A world without music is also a world without stories. The griots have functioned as storytellers and truth-tellers within West African society for centuries. In addition to mediating disputes and acting as advisers to early rulers, griots were oral historians. They knew regional legends and family histories, and through their music those stories were passed down from one generation to the next. Like the ancient manuscripts that militants tried to burn in a Timbuktu library in January, today’s griots are repositories of history. If they lose their social function as storytellers, society loses a critical link to its past.
This is especially true in Mali, where high rates of illiteracy mean that music — rather than newspapers or books — is a prime means of sharing information. Malian hip-hop artists in particular have tried to use their music to raise awareness about social issues. The Malian rapper Amkoullel addresses education in his song “Teaching, Studies,” rapping in both French and his local dialect, Bamanan. He rails against corruption in the school system: “A place to teach should not to be confused with a place to do business,” and inequality: “Private schools, so well equipped/Public education, neglected/The poor have no choice.”
Even before the militant takeover of the north last year, Amkoullel warned of the dire situation in the country in a song called S.O.S.: “The people rage /Their dreams are being killed /They no longer know in what to believe.” He formed an association called Plus Jamais Ça, or Never Again. Other musicians have also been coming together to call for an end to the conflict. In January, the singer Fatoumata Diawara brought together more than 40 musicians in Bamako, the capital, to record a peace song that showcased the extraordinary diversity and artistry of Malian music. Addressing themselves to military leaders and politicians, the musicians sing: “We must take care now, or our children will never know the real story of our country. We might lose it.”
One thing that the events in Mali have taught us is that music matters. And the potential loss of music as a means of social bonding, as a voice of conscience and as a mode of storytelling is not just a threat in an African country where Islamic militants made music a punishable offense. We would do well to appreciate music’s power, wherever we live.
Sujatha Fernandes is an associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and the author of “Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation.”

See a response to my piece by anthropologist Paul Stoller in the Huffington Post

See my previous Op-eds in the New York Times:

January 29, 2012, The Mixtape of the Revolution

August 6, 2011, "Straight Outta Havana" (Featured in the Sunday Review)

Saturday, May 18, 2013

My Book on Global Hip Hop Music


Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation

At its rhythmic, beating heart, Close to the Edge asks whether hip hop can change the world. Hip hop—rapping, beat-making,b-boying, deejaying, graffiti—captured the imagination of the teenage Sujatha Fernandes in the 1980s, inspiring her and politicizing her along the way. Years later, armed with mc-ing skills and an urge to immerse herself in global hip hop, she embarks on a journey into street culture around the world. From the south side of Chicago to the barrios of Caracas and Havana and the sprawling periphery of Sydney, she grapples with questions of global voices and local critiques, and the rage that underlies both. An engrossing read and an exhilarating travelogue, this punchy book also asks hard questions about dispossession, racism, poverty and the quest for change through a microphone.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

My articles on immigrant workers in American Prospect

A look into the life of female cab drivers in New York City, the last story in a three-part series.
Dolores Benitez
A look into the life of female cab drivers in New York City, the second in a three-part series.

A look into the life of Latino construction workers in New York City, the second in a three-part series.
Sujatha Fernandes
A look into the life of Latino construction workers in New York City, the first in a three-part series.

Tom D. Wu
It’s 11 a.m. on a brisk Friday morning. In the middle of a short block of 40th Road, just off Main Street in Queens, where colorful signs stand out against the densely packed four-story buildings, a handful of Chinese delivery workers dismount from their motorbikes. The dry pavement here is a welcome sight; much of the downtown area was buried under a foot of snow earlier in the week. The men, dressed in sneakers, blue jeans and puffy jackets, gather in a circle at one of the few empty parking spots.

Monday, May 6, 2013

My piece on Cuban media culture and activism

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Cuban journalists exposing injustice merit more attention

Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez is famous worldwide, but there are many other journalists within Cuba making a difference, writes Queens College professor Sujatha Fernandes.
Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez is famous worldwide, but there are many other journalists within Cuba making a difference, writes Queens College professor Sujatha Fernandes. (TIAGO QUEIROZ/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)
Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez recently completed a multi-city tour of the United States, speaking at major universities and even visiting the White House. Sánchez, who became internationally celebrated through her Generación Y blog, which won her a place on the Timemagazine list of 100 most influential people in 2008, Sánchez was awarded theInternational Women of Courage Award by the U.S. State Department in 2011.
Yet despite being hailed overseas for her dissident activities in the blogosphere, Sánchez has little impact inside Cuba, probably because of the difficulties most Cubans still have in accessing the Internet. Instead, the overzealous western media attention to a few prominent dissidents like Sánchez tends to obscure the highly critical culture that has developed within Cuba over the last ten to 15 years.
Much of the media coverage of Sánchez presents her as a lone critical voice in a climate where the Cuban state does not tolerate dissent and where—as Cuban-American novelist Oscar Hijuelos claimed in the Time magazine piece—journalists and others cannot practice freedom of speech. While it is true that there is censorship in Cuba, and journalism has always been under the supervision of the Communist Party-controlled Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR), there is a vigorous culture of criticism and internal debate in Cuba. But often, because many artists, journalists, and activists are not calling for the downfall of the government, they tend to go ignored or sidelined within western media coverage.
Digital filmmaking has been one way for young Cuban filmmakers to develop a new skills in investigative journalism, often outside the structures of the state film industry and government-controlled media. Ariagna Fajardo’s 2009 independent film “Where Are We Going?” looked at the massive exodus of farmers from the Sierra Maestra mountains due to an absence of opportunities for them to making a living. Armando Capo explored the resignation to daily life in his film “Inertia,” released in 2008.
At the Young Directors festival held in Havana earlier this month, Marcelo Martín premiered his new film, “Elena,” about the collapsing old residential buildings in Central Havana. Martín conducted interviews with workers and residents who show him their deteriorated homes—plagued by leaks and contaminated with raw sewerage from broken pipes. One older resident walked on blocks throughout his house to avoid stepping in sewerage, and after undergoing major surgery he slept on a park bench while recuperating.
The brigades sent to repair the homes left their work unfinished. The filmmaker calls the vice president of Popular Power to ask when the homes will be fixed, and she lies and tells him the work will resume on Monday. He closes the film with a snapshot: nearly half of the housing stock in Central Havana is in bad shape, and two hundred and thirty buildings in the neighborhood collapse every year.
This kind of investigative journalism–exposing official lies publicly and presenting the realities of people’s lives–has found fertile ground among young documentary filmmakers, but it often runs up against the problem of financing and dissemination. Crowdsourcing abroad has been one solution for funding. The US non-profit organization Americas Media Initiative has been crucial in selling the films in the US and organizing university tours for the filmmakers. Films are also copied onto flashdrives and then passed hand to hand.
Afro-Cuban activists form another key critical movement within Cuba focusing on racial discrimination. The issue became hotly debated after Casa de las Americas publishing house editor Roberto Zurbano was demoted for including the institution in his byline for a recent New York Times op-ed piece on racism in Cuba that was given a controversial title by the editors: “For Blacks in Cuba, The Revolution Hasn’t Begun.” (Zurbano says that his original title read:“Not Yet Finished.”)
Among the flurry of articles from the United States and Cuba about the article and its outcomes, the newly-created Havana-based organization Regional Afro-Descendent Articulation of Latin America (ARAC) defended Zurbano’s critique of racism in Cuba, saying that the black population suffers overwhelmingly from poverty and a lack of social mobility.
In response to those who objected to his talking about racism in Cuba, Zurbano affirmed the “emerging and heterogenous spaces of people, organizations, and alternative media that are taking on the present and future of the country.” The media culture at large should follow Zurbano’s example.
Sujatha Fernandes is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center and author of Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. She was a guest on “Melissa Harris-Perry” on April 14. See the video from that discussion below.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

My interview on MSNBC about the US embargo against Cuba

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Has the US embargo against Cuba failed?

It’s only about 100 miles from the U.S., but if you’re not Jay-Z and Beyonce, you’re probably not going to visit Cuba soon. The Communist regime remains in place after 50 years under “the choke-hold of economic sanctions,” and travel restrictions, and the embargo costs the U.S. $1.2 billion every year, but nearly half of Americans support leaving it in place. America does business with other nations with long track records of human rights violations and corruption; what about Cuba makes it so controversial, and will the sanctions ever end?
On Sunday’s Melissa Harris-Perry, the panel took a long look at the forces that keep the embargo in place, how Cubans themselves have adapted to life under these restrictions, and how the prison at Guantanamo Bay damages American credibility during arguments about Cuba’s political prisoners.
While the embargo may be a “vestige of the Cold War,” as professor Lisandro Perez said, nearly half of American still support it. Melissa Harris-Perry was joined by Perez, Michigan State University professor Lisa Cook, super PAC director Mauricio Claver-Carone, scholar Soffiyah Elijah, and CUNY professor Sujatha Fernandes for an occasionally contentious debate that ranged from homegrown Cuban hip-hop to the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Watch the discussion here and tune in next weekend at 10 a.m.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

My interview on MSNBC about Venezuela

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March 10: Hugo Chavez, Latin America, how the rules get made in Washington

File Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks at a press conference in Miraflores Palace December 5, 2006 in Caracas, Venezuela. Chavez was officially declared the re-elected president by electoral authorities today after defeating challenger Manuel Rosales in the December 3 election.  (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images, File)
File Photo: Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez speaks at a press conference in Miraflores Palace December 5, 2006 in Caracas, Venezuela. Chavez was officially declared the re-elected president by electoral authorities today after defeating challenger Manuel Rosales in the December 3 election. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images, File)
On Sunday’s Up w/ Chris Hayes, we’ll examine the death and complicated legacy of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Then we’ll zoom out, to reflect on the state of Latin America in the wake of Chavez’s death. And finally, we’ll examine how the rules get made in Washington — and who makes them. Regulators are still at work promulgating many of the rules that will determine whether some of President Obama’s signature initiatives, such as the Dodd-Frank Wall Street form bill and the Affordable Care Act, succeed.
Joining Chris at 8 AM ET on MSNBC will be:
Deepak Bhargava, executive director, Center for Community Change.
M. Victoria Murillo, professor of political science and international affairs at Columbia University, author of “Labor Unions, Partisan Coalitions & Market Reforms in Latin America.”
Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue.
Alejandro Velasco, professor at New York University and author of “We Are Still Rebels: The Challenge of Popular History in Bolivarian Venezuela.”
Michael Moynihan (@mcmoynihan), cultural news editor for Newsweek and The Daily Beast.
Sujatha Fernandes, associate professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York, author of “Who Can Stop the Drums?: Urban Social Movements in Chavez’s Venezuela.”
Greg Grandin, professor of history at New York University and author of “Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City.”
Former Ohio Republican Congressman Bob Ney (@bobney), author of “Sideswiped: Lessons Learned Courtesy of the Hit Men of Capitol Hill.”
Raj Date, former deputy director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
Alexis Goldstein (@alexisgoldstein), Occupy Wall Street activist.
Watch the show here:

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Venezuela after Chávez

Books on Chávez and Venezuela

What lies ahead for Venezuela after the death of president Hugo Chávez? To understand Venezuela's history, culture, and politics at this crucial crossroads, check out these books.

In Who Can Stop the Drums?: Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela, Sujatha Fernandes also looks at Chávez’s poor supporters in the barrios of Caracas. Her widely-praised book portrays everyday life and politics in the shantytowns of Caracas through accounts of community-based radio, barrio assemblies, and popular fiestas, and the many interviews she conducted with activists and government officials. Listen here to a recent interview with Fernandes and Miguel Tinker Salas on KALW's "Your Call."