Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A Beautiful Struggle: Culture Shock Fights the Power

On Friday, July 25th, Culture Shock-LA put on an impressive theatrical show called "A Beautiful Struggle: Every Revolution Must Have Its MARTyrs" at the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Hollywood, CA. The program was filled with an extravagant number of dancers, some as young as 6 or 7. The Future Shock kids--the younger cohort of Culture Shock students--put on a great show that was definitely inspiring to young people in the crowd.

Read a great review of "A Beautiful Struggle" in Asiance Magazine here.

The basic premise of the show is a militant advocacy for the arts amidst a futuristic world that seeks to censure art's freedom of expression. In the year 2020, the U.S. government passes the National Creative Control Act (NCCA), a law that jails and punishes anyone who expresses themselves artistically. Of course, the young artists (more specifically hip hop dancers) triumph in the end with their passion for the arts (more specifically hip hop). The actors claim "hip hop saved my life" in a gloomy and dangerous world. The show appropriately ends with a Janet Jackson "Rhythm Nation" dance set (see 1:25 of the clip above).

The gem of the show is the dance talent. The story, however, had a political-tinge that is quite palatable, especially for younger audience members. Indeed, the theater was packed with a whole new generation of hip hop enthusiasts, who hopefully internalized the message regarding hip hop's cultural power.

But, as a critical audience member, you were left to ask a few questions. For example:

"What real-life connections can we make with the NCCA?"
Are there certain initiatives today that are not too far from the goals of the NCCA? Some examples: the de-funding of the state arts programs, slashing of arts classes in schools, and even the outlawing of Ethnic Studies (which has a central humanities focus).

"Is the jailing of artists really about martyrdom?"
What kind of connections/disconnections does this story have in reference to the real killing and disappearance of activists in some countries? In other words, in the year 2020, where does the "struggle continue" in regards to neocolonized, genocide-surviving nations? Has the revolution of power occurred by this time? Basically, I would like to know how the writers would connect the actual martyrdom and disappearance of activists today with this futuristic interpretation of state censorship.

I wonder if this show was not G-rated, if the writers would actually have these artists killed instead of jailed and put on trial, given that the killing of artists actually happens TODAY, and not in some abstract 2020 future.

"Is there a way that the state and corporations today are successfully controlling and censuring artists, even without passing censorship law?"
This thought came up because hip hop today is not as subversive and politically-charged as it used to be. At least not the stuff on radio and TV. You have to dig for good hip hop these days. Read this very recent article about media consolidation and the disappearing power of independent radio, and you'll understand how hip hop is no longer subversive in the mainstream.

So it seems that in the year 2008, the state is winning a year 2020 futuristic battle: even without passing censorship laws, politically-tinged artists no longer have access to mass-impacting and subversive cultural power as they used to. Hip hop especially is more like Disney entertainment than a cultural movement. (This comes to the point in which heads who are politically-saavy hip hop cultural activists are deemed "elitist.")

But groups like Culture Shock-LA and other hip hop cultural organizations are "fighting the power" of mind-numbing radio and TV hip hop by organizing young folks in positive cultural spaces, where they are encouraged to find their self-worth and cultivate respect for all people.

Big ups to the sista Michelle Castelo (Executive Director of Culture Shock-LA) for helping produce this amazing showcase! Peep this nice interview with Michelle, Culture Shock-LA President and Kaba Modern founder Arnel Calvario, and other good folk.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Step Up! A Night of Pin@y Dancers in Hollywood

"We keep it street, yo"

On Monday, July 14th I had the pleasure of attending the Step Up 2: The Streets DVD release party at the Avalon in Hollywood. I haven't seen the movie yet (I heard it was good...I guess that includes the compulsory lily protagonists and all), but for sure the party was off the chain.

If you're a fan of the reality TV dance shows, like America's Best Dance Crew, then you should be hellllla jealous. The party featured some of the top/most popular dance crews from these shows, and of course, mad Pin@ys were in the house. (In addition, the Living Legends crew was in the house. An exclusive party indeed.)

As soon as I walked into the venue, I hunted down the homey DJ Icy Ice who hooked it up with a backstage pass. He pulled me backstage in order to meet some of the dancers because he knew I was doing recruiting for the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture. I thought I'd meet maybe one or two dancers, but yo, its like I met the whole village. The first folks I met were Team Millenia. Nice folks. All dope dancers on their own.

During the "battles" and performances, the dancers brought their own unique flavors. However, since Step Up is a Disney production, there were some elements of the night that left you like "que?"

Here is the Disney part:

We all know how battles work: someone from one crew burns the floor, after which a member from the opposing crew follows. Simple enough. Or, as has become popular, a crew does acrobatic choreography together, like someone flipping over a crouching crewmember or a brutha wrapping they thighs around another brutha’s hips and spinning, weird shit like that.

Well, the event’s idea of a battle was ALL members of the crews had to be movin to the pre-requested music that Ice spun. Not one person from one crew, then the other—no. They wanted it real “The Debut,” “Save the Last Dance” synchronized and spontaneous-lookin style. Kinda fresh, right? Right...

Culture Shock LA at Global Dance Showcase

It kinda worked for the first crew battle between Fysh N Chicks and World Famous (ill mostly Pinay bgirls from San Diego), because I think they both rehearsed a full set, or at least had in mind what they wanted to do. But for the battles between Kaba Modern vs. Team Millenia (an epic battle, I would think, but it wasn't really) and Culture Shock vs. Quest the ALL member choreography dance format didn’t work. Maybe because these folks are used to “real” bboy/girl battles, and not all that funky choreographed mess. (Or, maybe some members just didn't know how to battle.)

But for the most of the night, folks vibed on the dance floor. As I scoped the scene, I gave daps to Kid Rainen from JabbaWockeez, grooved with the World Famous sistas, and ciphered with Culture Shock folk.

It seems strange though, doesn’t it?

I mean, this shit ain’t new. Our folk been rockin this choreographed dance scene for close to two decades. The brutha Arnel (here he is doing the Iron Horse and locking) knows! He founded Kaba Modern in the early 1990s, and today is Kaba Modern a cultural institution in Southern CA.

What I’m curious about
is all the attention and money been given to it—open bar at the Avalon, Hollywood execs, Disney movie and all. Backstage, I asked Arnel: "Who would have thought?" We both smiled and chuckled.

to these talented Pin@y bruthas and sistas for making a very noticeable and public impression. Keep pushin the art forward, and while your at it, go head rake that dolo.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Keep the Crossover / What Color is a Filipino?

"Fucker was too fast." Manny KOs David Diaz

The Faux-Crossover: The Year of Pin@ys on TV
Manny Pacquiao- Unstoppable world boxing champion
Dale Tilde- Top six on Bravo's Top Chef
- America's Best Dance Crew champs
Ramiele Malubay- American Idol top ten winner
Team Millenia, Supreme Soul, Boogie Bots, SoReal Cru, Super Cr3w
, and at least one member in all the other crews in Season Two of America's Best Dance Crew
SickStep- So You Think You Can Dance
Michelle Camaya (Mochi)- Step It Up and Dance runner-up
DJ Neil Armstrong- DJ for Jay-Z's Heart of the City Tour
Any more?

DJ Neil Armstrong postin up with Jay

The folks mentioned above are not unique, really. Filipinos have been representing on TV and in sports for a long time. The difference with these cats is 1) that they make more of an effort to project the fact that they Filipino. And 2) there really hasn't been this many (unambiguous) Pin@ys on at once. Flip a channel, you get a flip. Wild!

With so many Filipinos making an appearance in the mainstream, are they going crossover? When I say crossover, I mean crossover in the Death of Rhythm and Blues by Nelson George sense. Yes, in the EPMD-sense:

"The rap era's outta control, brother's sellin their soul
To go gold, going, going, gone, another rapper sold"

(As a side note, peep this dope posting on defining moments of rap's crossover.)

So, are Filipinos crossing over? I would argue: No. First of all, Filipinos are not (yet?) trying to appeal to the (white) majority by sacrificing their aesthetics, politics, or identity in order to be more marketable. Pin@ys simply doing what they do (dancing, boxing, writing, singing, cooking). And secondly, it is difficult to pinpoint a distinct "Filipino aesthetic" in the first place. Whereas Black musical traditions are well-documented and distinguishable (you ever been to a Black church, or a White church whose choir awkwardly played Gospel? Check the hand claps yo), defining what "sounds" or "looks" Filipino is more challenging. So how would we know if our aesthetics are compromised?

But for sure, Pin@ys are getting more and more shine in the mainstream; in a sense we have "crossed" over. But more like a "faux-crossover" if you will: the attention, without the desperate catering.* (Of course, the faux-crossover is also a function of the "problem of invisibility" among our community.)

Even though it is hard to identify what is clearly Filipino, people can pretend they know what is Filipino. On top of becoming more dominant demographically, as Filipinos get more and more notoriety on TV and in sports (it ain't slowin down kid!), it is interesting to ask: what racial camp will they be lumped in? What accents will be used when Filipinos are portrayed on TV? What music will they be associated with? (For Latinos, the consensus seems to be Salsa. For Hawaiians, Don Ho). What color is a Filipino? Yellow? Brown? Neither?

I'm fascinated by the possibilities. It might be the lumping of diverse and even conflicting groups, like Latinos have been marketed as a homogenous whole (hey, Latinos can be Black, Brown, White, even Asian!), or a redefining of Filipinos in some "other" category (sort of like how "Arab" and "South Asian" gained popular traction post-911, when much of U.S. history has been predominantly a Black/White story). But the funny thing for Filipinos is their obvious colonial relationship with the U.S., so "othering" us like that of Arabs or South Asians would be awkward on both sides, like someone's boss bumping into a fired employee at the grocery store check out.

Krishtine de Leon, the winner of MTV's "I'm From Rolling Stone" reality TV show (2007), ran into some (some is an understatement) of these ironies and contradictions as a Filipina contestant on the show. Type-casting a Pin@y is kinda difficult, and viewers tried to register Krishtine's look, speech, and actions. Critical of being encompassed in the "Asian" or "Chinese" category, Krish made it clear: "I am PINAY. A Filipina woman. I am not an "Asian with a Latino Accent."

So as you watch them Pin@ys rock the stage on MTV and Pacquiao rise in boxing supremacy, let's wait and see how we are interpreted.

2008 is a historic year! The faux-crossover begins! And yes, it will be awkward...

*BIG NOTE: Unless, you count the watered-down nature of MTV and the need for talented Pin@y dance crews to be "crowd pleasers" rather than push aesthetic limits as dancers who happen to have brown faces.