Friday, 5 April 2019

Britain's International Image is in Tatters. It Falls Upon Us as Young People to Start Fixing It.

My relationship with Brexit is a lot like my relationship with the Walking Dead. In its early stages, I was impassioned and fascinated despite being utterly horrified. Now, with the coming and going of one repetitive, amateurish episode after the other, I remain gripped by nothing more than a nihilistic desire to ‘see what happens next’. It won’t come as much of a surprise to find out that this view is widely shared by our European counterparts; they too are frustrated and indeed bored by the relentless tedium of the ongoing negotiations. And just like us they can do nothing but shout from the audience as the pantomime is played out before them.

My experience living in Spain has shown me that, while those who have visited Britain tend to speak highly of their experience, the outward image that our country projects is that of a stubborn, ignorant former imperial power who expects the world to bend the knee to its wishes and accommodate its needs. We simply cannot let the governing class of this country continue to dictate how we are perceived by the rest of the world. Just as it has fallen upon us to lead Britain’s fight against climate change, as young people we must now start taking responsibility for cleaning up our damaged international image.

As I’m sure you can work out from the chirpy tone of that opening gambit, I am somewhat bemused by the daily stories emerging from Westminster.

The way our politicians have conducted themselves (with obvious and notable exceptions) has been a national disgrace. Tribal politics and big personalities have opened up huge rifts within both of the main parties, whose positions have been as coherent as Boris Johnson after six pints of Buckfast. For three years he and a host of other hard-Brexit cronies including the slippery lips of Michael Gove (a separate entity to the man himself) and the lazily written Sherlock Holmes villain, Jacob Rees-Mogg, have lived comfortably inside a Union-Jack-adorned bubble. There they continue to float, cheerily distant from reality, something they lost touch with long ago.

The pompous, self-entitled manner in which the Tory government has carried out negotiations, hindered constantly by shameless, opportunistic plotting within its upper ranks has made us an embarrassment in Europe. Yet its task was doomed from the start because our aforementioned friends promised the British people something that is fundamentally impossible to deliver.

We should, then, be able to look to the opposition for some clarity, for some sanity. Apparently not… In recent months Jeremy Corbyn has resembled a political vulture, circling in the sky waiting for the dying bleat from Theresa May’s beleaguered premiership.
“I could negotiate a better deal!”, he squawks. His arrogant, indecisive and equally opportunistic behaviour is sure to isolate him from many of his young supporters.

Together, they have left us staring off the cliff-edge of a no-deal exit from the EU.

We’ve signed, we’ve marched, we’ve written witty banners but, like the season finale of the Walking Dead, the shit-show that comes next is simply out of our hands. So, for those of us who feel betrayed by this whole debacle, what can we do?

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, our fight against Brexit has not been so widely publicised in Europe until recently. Of course, from a European perspective, Britain typically plays the antagonist in the unfolding drama, red-faced and stroppy at not getting things her own way. As a result, I am often greeted with a certain degree of surprise when I express my firm pro-European position. While this is always likely to be the case (the media tends to frame the situation in the most easily digestible way), the image of Britain as a more isolated, self-absorbed figure predates Brexit.

Brits have often struggled to integrate in Europe. And while our doors are open to hundreds of thousands, we send a lower proportion of students abroad than most of our Western European neighbours. A 2018 survey of students by the British Council found that just 18% of respondents expressed an interest in studying abroad.

It is not just an issue of the amount that we interact with our neighbours but also how we interact with them. Every tourist is a cultural ambassador for their country, from a Parisian artist sketching the British countryside to a Brummie geezer on the strip in Kavos.

To integrate with people it always helps to talk to them. Out of 28 member states, the United Kingdom has the lowest percentage of people who speak a second language. For the most part, this can again be attributed to political failings; inept education ministers (Nicky Morgan, Michael Gove, the list goes on) and constant shifts in policy. But not entirely. Of course, English is the most widely spoken language across the EU, but this has made us complacent. And rather than acknowledging the remarkable skill that it represents, it is too often simply expected that a European will speak to us in our native tongue.

Obviously, when travelling, we cannot be blamed for wanting to chase the good weather. But so often this becomes our main, or indeed only, consideration. Spain is by far the most popular foreign holiday destination for Brits, yet we tend to flock to the beaches of the Tenerife, Mallorca or the Costa del Sol. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sticking to what you know, but if we all stay sheltered by the relative safety of our comfort zone we will continue to strike an isolated figure in Europe.

Our politicians have made a mockery of Britain’s outward image. However, while their mistakes are irredeemable, the damage done is not irreparable. Yes, we made the mistake of not turning out in big enough numbers to vote in 2016. That is our burden to bear, and we must now start picking up the pieces of the ensuing mess, but it is hard to know where to start. Being receptive to new experiences is the key to changing how we come across. For those of you lucky enough to have the privilege, tear yourself away from the motherland for a few days and spend some time across the channel. It is easy to forget, amongst the xenophobia and bigotry, that your passport is still a visa-free pass to 27 countries. And if your heart is set on a Spanish beach, go to a Spanish beach, but go to Málaga, not Magaluf, Barcelona not Benidorm.

It is up to us to try and salvage something from this national disaster, whatever the eventual outcome. Because if we don’t, no one else will.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

The Handmaid's Tale Spotlight: The Political Wake Up Call We Desperately Need

There are basically three types of women and reactions. One is the good woman who very much loves her future husband, solely for himself, but refuses to sign the agreement on principle. I fully understand this, but the man should take a pass anyway and find someone else.

The other is the calculating woman who refuses to sign the prenuptial agreement because she is expecting to take advantage of the poor, unsuspecting sucker she’s got in her grasp. There is also the woman who will openly and quickly sign a prenuptial agreement in order to make a quick hit and take the money given to her. Personally speaking, when I come home and dinner's not ready, I go through the roof. For, this reason, I could never vote for Hillary Clinton. I mean, if she can't satisfy her husband, what makes her think she can satisfy America? She doesn't have the look, she doesn't have the stamina.

The words of a pathological male supremacist or, as he's more commonly known, Donald, the tangerine tyrant, Trump, alleged leader of the 'free world'. While it's hardly original to label a man who has boasted about grabbing women "by the pussy" and who has claimed "there has to be some form of punishment" for women or doctors disobeying abortion laws- a sexist, many continue to underestimate the severity of such misogyny. To anyone who believes that he is a mere anomaly in society’s otherwise successful pursuit of gender equality, I urge you to watch Hulu's adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and reconsider such a position. The message of this gripping, chillingly poignant new adaptation is more pertinent now than ever.

Season 3 is expected to air on Channel 4 in May

Bringing to life Atwood's legendary 1985 novel, a seminal text in modern feminist literature, the programme presents a dystopia in which humanity's environmental contamination (certainly not a farfetched idea) has led birth rates to plummet. The ensuing crisis has resulted in the overthrow of the US government and its replacement by the ultraconservative 'Gilead' regime, a totalitarian Christian theocracy in which Constitutional law has been replaced by bible verse. What could be better placed to guide a country out of crisis than the good old, cuddly Christian bible? A book that is older, I might add, than the Roman Empire...

Under the regime, women are completely banned from reading and personal income, their occupations diminished to little beyond servant work. If you're a fertile, unmarried woman, or a 'whore' as you're cheerily pronounced, you can expect to be shipped off to a member of the new oligarchic elite to be systematically raped each month in order to 'rebuild the nation'. The story follows Offred (formerly June), one of these lucky ladies. Names reduced to that of their new master, these 'handmaids' become the latter's property, doing "God's work" by becoming human incubators for the happy Christian couples who make up Gilead's new social elite. Happy Christian couples who also beat them for disobedience, tardiness or just because they generally feel like it. Atwood's brutal dystopian world casts a grim metaphor for our own.

Having read the book aged seventeen, my lasting memory of it has always been slightly conflicted. As a critique, it is nothing short of genius. Alongside Shelley's Frankenstein, it opened my eyes to the feminist ideas of gender representation, societal gender roles and systemic inequality. However, despite my deep appreciation for their ideas, the verbose gothic writing style of Shelley and the blunt realism of Atwood weren't personally enjoyable to read. They were not, as is often foolishly yet aptly described: 'page turners'.

The TV adaptation, however, possesses everything I found lacking in the book. Elisabeth Moss brings Offred to life sensationally, transforming what I found to be a somewhat frustrating protagonist and narrator into a bonafide dystopian badass. On screen, we are able to see smaller acts of defiance in things like Moss' tone of voice and facial expressions which make her a far more inspiring protagonist. Despite the unimaginable oppression she suffers, Offred's resilience and razor-sharp wit, combined with a profoundly dark sense of humour, allow her to persevere against the systemic evil of the Gilead regime.

While clearly the original text focussed, principally, on gender, the show's creators have been able to widen the scope of its criticism to make it more relevant to 21st-century audiences. First and foremost, far more narrative weight is placed on the environmental element which establishes the show's opening premise. And you can see why. Concerns over the future of our species have never been so widespread. Mr Trump, as well as claiming that “global warming was created by and for the Chinese”, has appointed two successive human-caused climate change sceptics as heads of America’s Environmental Protection Agency. With so much about this planet still unknown, it is far from unfeasible to suggest that our mutilation of it may come back to bite us sooner, even, than we currently imagine. If Atwood’s warning of masculinist totalitarianism isn't enough to make you start doing your recycling, I'm not sure what will!

Furthermore, the series gives more weight to Atwood’s critique of religious intolerance, principally of other faiths but also of those deviating from traditional norms of sexuality. While women are forced into de facto slavery, Muslims, Jews, homosexuals and any other group considered ‘deviant’ are simply exterminated. Clearly, hers is an extreme example but there are certainly traces of Gilead in modern society. Our failure to tolerate difference and our alarming lack of solidarity during times of crisis was evident in the frenzied (politically reinforced) Islamophobia in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, as well as in the hostile xenophobia of post-Brexit Britain. It’s disconcerting that Atwood’s criticism, written over 35 years ago, continues to be chillingly relevant today.

Season one sticks fairly closely to the plot of the novel, elaborating upon it where necessary and quoting from it directly in Offred's detached first-person narration which preserves Atwood's astute social commentary. We are given gems like "ignoring isn't the same as ignorance, you have to work at it" and "a rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, so long as it stays inside the maze". The latter really has the most resonance as a critique of today's world, an unambiguous metaphor for the glass ceiling effect which women around the world suffer every day.

Women gaining the right to drive in Saudi Arabia and corporate giants introducing 'gender non-discrimination policies', while seemingly abstract from each other, are linked in this regard. Both present the illusion of the expansion of rights as a form of short-term placation to help preserve a system run by, and thus inherently for, men. Women being physically held captive purely on account of their gender in Gilead metaphorises the very real constraints they continue to experience on a daily basis in the job market, in political representation and in social perceptions.

When societies attempt to define themselves, they nearly always look elsewhere for points of comparison. This can (and often does) too easily become self-delusion. In Britain, we inflate the liberal, egalitarian nature of our country by contrasting it with the perceived ‘backwardness’ of nations like Saudi Arabia. We overlook our own problems of systemic racism and police brutality by fixating on the shocking stories coming from across the Atlantic. This prevents us from looking inwardly at our shortcomings.

Mark Duggan, whose death at the hands of police sparked
the London riots in 2011. The cropping of this image in the
mainstreameam media demonstrates how he was dehumanised.
Let us not forget that in my current home of Spain, married women were not allowed to work without their husband’s permission until 1975. Or that, during the Argentinian dictatorship, around five hundred babies born within the regime’s torture centres were taken from their mothers and given to couples to be raised in strict concordance with the junta’s capitalist, Christian vision. Most of these couples were “directly linked to the dictatorship”.

What the Handmaid’s Tale tells us, above all, is that we have become complacent. Powerful political forces are at play, conditioning us to ‘keep calm and carry on’ ignoring the vast social inequalities which exist between men and women. If you believe systemic sexism and racism to be things of the past then it seems they have already been successful.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

11 Lesser-known Hip Hop Artists You NEED to Hear

Hip-hop has always been considered a genre of opportunity, allowing talented artists, regardless of their background, to rise to fame and fortune... and then boast incessantly about it in every song. While this is still certainly the case, rap music has been dominated in recent years by the big hitters of the industry... names like Drake, Kanye and Kendrick Lamar. This, however, has meant that many incredibly talented artists (rappers and producers alike) have fallen through the cracks. They are consigned to the underground world of hip-hop where there's no Maybacks, only Ford Fiestas; no five-storey mansions in Miami but two-bedroom flats in Daggenham. Slightly exaggerated perhaps but you get the gist. Here are eleven lesser known hip-hop artists who have never reached the popular pinnacle that they deserved.

Hip-hop is, or at least should be, a battle for originality, a battle to craft bars sharper, flows smoother and beats catchier than the swathes of other MCs and producers. So to be able to master all three demands a level of respect reserved only for a relatively small group of artists, among them El-P, Kanye West and Oddisee.
A producer throughout the majority of his career, Amir Mohamed (A.K.A. Oddisee) has begun, only recently, to start adopting lyrical responsibilities as well. His sound draws heavily from 70s-90s R&B, so the majority of his instrumentals have an upbeat, funky quality to them, regularly making use of saxophones, trombones and the occasional electric guitar. Despite only stepping behind the mic on the last few of his records, Oddisee has a quick and very recognisable flow, hopping rapidly from syllable to syllable in a distinctly energetic manner. Whilst his earlier songwriting may lack the nuance of more accomplished MC’s, the Washington-born artist has honed his lyrical talents, providing songs with ever greater clarity of message. This really shines through on this year’s widely acclaimed release The Iceberg, a triumph of both production and songwriting.

The Nas of Detroit. While his individual discography may be younger than some of these other names, Elzhi, with lorry loads of maturity and creativity, carries the air of a seasoned veteran. Traversing his city’s various underground venues and open mic nights, it wasn’t until his fourth year of recording that he was handed his first pay cheque in the rap game for a feature on fellow Detroiter J Dilla’s Welcome To Detroit in 2001. Seven years later came his first L.P. The Preface, on which he truly unleashed the wizardry of his lyrical genius.
Elzhi approaches songwriting differently to most MCs, each track a concept to be explored through complex rhyming structures. When we say complex, we’re talking up to four or five rhyming syllables within a single line. Songs like Colors address the issue of race inequality by using wordplay related to… well you can probably guess: “And white collar crime done on the sneak tip // Different from blue collar workers catching the pink slip”. This trend is continued on 2016’s Lead Poison which features tracks like Misright, which plays on words with the ‘mis-’ prefix to refer to various women he has dated and the sublime Hello!!!!!!, written from the perspective of Elzhi trapped within the song itself. If that wasn’t enough to nudge you in his direction, he has also released Elmatic, a completely remixed version of Nas’ seminal 1994 record.

Company Flow
Run the Jewels are quickly becoming one of the most critically acclaimed hip hop duos since Outkast. Much of this newfound success can be attributed to the group’s producer El-P who, in addition to incredible performances on the mic, has provided them with their uniquely infectious sound. El-P’s talents, vital for the success of RTJ, can be found in equal measure in his first group, Company Flow, which formed in 1993.

Left to right: Bigg Jus, Mr Len & El-P
A trio consisting of El-P, Bigg Jus and Mr Len, the group was based in New York, yet sounded like almost nothing else coming out of the East Coast scene at the time. Whilst being more subdued than RTJ, their magnum opus Funcrusher Plus is an early example of El-P’s penchant for futuristic, experimental production that stands head and shoulders above most of his peers.
Both El-P and Bigg Jus give excellent verses that are full of abstract wordplay, elevating the idiosyncratic feel of the album. At times it is also highly political, showing the MCs cynicism and anger at the US government, an element familiar to fans of Run the Jewels. Funcrusher Plus is easily one of the most underrated albums of the 90s, and is an essential listen for both lovers of underground hip hop as well as fans of RTJ who are looking to experience the origin of one of the greatest hip hop producers of all time.

A 26 year old rapper originating from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Milo is a key player in the burgeoning “art rap” scene, named after a term first coined by one of his frequent collaborators Open Mike Eagle, another excellent MC who is equally deserving of your attention. Whilst hard to categorise, art rap has essentially been defined as an attempt to elevate hip hop to the level of high art, placing an emphasis on left field production and subversive lyrics. The scene can trace its lineage back to legendary artists such as De La Soul and MF DOOM, who prided themselves on diverging from established hip hop trends at the time. Currently the scene consists of a close knit group who frequently contribute to each others’ projects, including Busdriver, Open Mike Eagle and Milo. While the label may seem pretentious at first glance, with Milo himself expressing disdain towards the term, it is hard to deny the extraordinary talent displayed by these artists.

Bet that's the first rapper you've seen who tucks their shirt in...
Milo has a distinctly philosophical approach to lyricism, with song titles such as “Folk-Metaphysics” being common amongst his work. His verses are also rife with pop culture references, and in particular fans of wrestling will appreciate the song Sweet Chin Music (The Fisher King’s Anthem), which as the title implies makes numerous references to WWE stars including Steve Austin, yet still retains the philosophical element which makes his bars so mind-bending. The production is equally stellar, with a laid back, psychedelic style often relying on samples from indie rock artists such as Bon Iver and The xx, making Milo one of the more accessible rappers to music fans that don’t usually listen to hip hop.

Immortal Technique
Immortal Technique is the MC name of Peruvian born former battle rapper Felipe Coronel. In a similar vein to Britain’s Akala, his tracks provide you with heavy doses of poignant political theory alongside the typically self-aggrandizing content which characterizes most early 2000s hip-hop. He covers a vast range of topics. When he’s not condemning US governments, past and present, for rigging the global economy and establishing de facto neo-colonial rule over the developing world, he’s taking the music industry to task for fleecing the very artists whose hard work brings in the money which lines executive pockets.
While his lyrics are certainly less nuanced than those of his contemporaries, they hit home with far greater impact and address issues far more directly. Delivered always in a tone of almost aggressive urgency, Coronel seeks to pulverise (debunk isn’t an aggressive enough verb) the status quo conceptions of American foreign policy which have allowed the nation to escape scrutiny for a plethora of undemocratic actions around the world. This couplet from The Third World gives you a brief glimpse: “I’m from where they overthrow democratic leaders / Not for the people but for the Wall Street Journal readers”. Instrumentally, the beats chosen tend to match the urgency of the accompanying lyrics, regularly making use of trumpets, pipes and classic guitar to do so. As expressed however, it is the message and, to an extent, the intentions of his music which I find most admirable, using his position to give, as he states, “a voice to the voiceless”.

Cannibal Ox
Since the release of their seminal 2001 record The Cold Vein (the first full-length release from omnipresent producer El-P’s label Definitive Jux) Cannibal Ox have defied hip-hop convention wherever possible. Regularly rapping on the offbeat, they effortlessly switch up their flows to match often discordant and constantly changing instrumentals. It is this which makes their sound so unique but has also, perhaps, sealed off any routes towards popular stardom.
One of the most striking features of the Harlem duo’s work is its spacey production: very few hip-hop albums could you justifiably describe as ‘cosmic’ without sounding like a 90s stoner. Yet it is the space-age beats and sci-fi sound effects which characterise the vast majority of their material. Although lyrically Cannibal Ox are about as abstract as they come, most of their bars are nothing short of genius; they can be just as reflective as they are forward-thinking. And, while it certainly takes a few listens to comprehend, much of the extra-terrestrial wordplay refers to the tough, violent surroundings in which they grew up.
Unlike many of their contemporaries, who have since faded after debuting brightly, the pair have continued to shine, their 2015 release Blade Of The Ronin showcasing yet more lyrical and rhythmic talents. If those alone aren’t enough, the record is littered with impressive guest features from rappers like Elzhi, MF Doom and U-God.
Choice Bar:
I got a two piece like Pacquiao in the dead of winter
My two steps like Mayweather
My forearms is like Foreman
Swing at your grill with the weight of four men

It’s almost cheating to include Hieroglyphics in this list. The Oakland-based hip-hop conglomerate combine the songwriting craftsmanship of no less than eight Californian rappers and producers. The beauty of such creative manpower is that nearly every song sounds very distinct from the last. Started by Ice Cube’s cousin Del The Funky Homosapien (surely one of the best MC names of all time), the group typically adopt a style reminiscent of the thriving West Coast scene which inspired them.
With some of the best flows on this list, the diverse crew play effortlessly off one another, their chemistry most evident in 2003’s Full Circle in songs like Let It Roll and Powers That Be. That means the instrumentals are stripped back, keyboard-heavy and extremely catchy, looped continuously throughout the song with each MC taking his turn on the mic. Simultaneously, however, they avoid the boastful, materialistic ‘bitches and money’ lyricism which dominated popular West coast rap in the 90s and 2000’s. Del sums it up nicely in At The Helm: “Rap ain't about bustin caps and fuckin bitches / It's about fluency with rhymin ingenuity”. A delightful cocktail of Self-awareness and cockiness.

Undoubtedly, 2003’s Full Circle captures the well-crafted bars and smoothness of sound for which the crew have become known and respected so make that your first port of call.

We travel now, to the Deep South, somewhere between Lexington; Kentucky and Atlanta; Georgia. Acclaimed mainly from within Southern underground rap circles, this threepiece have tackled a vast range of lyrical concepts and production styles across six studio albums and many more mixtapes. Take a tour through their colourful discography and you’ll see California, New York, and Atlanta jostling for sonic primacy. You’ll meet huge names from across the spectrum of US hip-hop including Del The Funky Homosapien, Aesop Rock and Killer Mike, the funkier influences of the likes of Andre 3000 and Erykah Badu providing an ever-present backing track. Kno, a truly sensational producer, combines an eclectic range of samples (utilising a myriad of instruments and genres) with the articulate lyrics, laid back flows and soothing vocals of fellow members Natti and Deacon The Villain.
“We don’t really ‘try’ to do anything… a lot of hip-hop artists try too hard and when they do they end up sucking” Kno said in 2008, encapsulating the easygoing attitude which has come to define their discography. Nevertheless, they have tackled issues from racial inequality and poverty to sexual abuse with the wistful voices of rap veterans. The best examples of political commentary come from the freshly released Rose Azura Njano (lovingly reviewed by yours truly). If you’re looking for something more on the mellow side, CunninLynguists are your boys…

Aesop Rock
Aesop Rock has been one of the preeminent names in underground hip hop for over two decades now, working with peers such as Slug (MC for the criminally underrated duo Atmosphere) and, of course, El-P, who signed Aesop to his Def Jux record label. Aesop is most well known for the size of his vocabulary, which is almost intimidating in its breadth. A study examining the number of unique words used within an artist’s first 35000 lyrics shows that, if a rapper’s prowess were to be measured solely by the breadth of their vocabulary, Aesop is miles ahead of any other rapper you can think of. First, some context – the lowest entry on the list is DMX, with 3214 unique words used. Drake is not much higher, with 3522. Somewhere in the middle of the list is Eminem, with 4,494. If Shakespeare were on i, he’d be in the top third, with 5170 unique words. The 2nd highest vocabulary belongs to GZA of the Wu Tang Clan, who used 6426. And finally, far out in front is Aesop Rock, with a staggering 7392 unique words used in his lyrics. Based on this, Aesop is arguably one of the most talented wordsmiths in hip hop.

Choice Bar

"I'm a sovereignty columnist,
fathering doom document.
Cursed version of a certain Virgin Mary womb occupant."

Whilst this may initially make some of his bars seemingly indecipherable to anyone other than the man himself, who is known for using obscure metaphors, his impressive flow and the typically excellent production ensure that even when you can’t understand what he’s saying, it still sounds incredible.

Sage Francis
Originating from Providence, Rhode Island, Sage Francis is perhaps most notable for his genre-bending style, making him one of the most idiosyncratic rappers in the underground scene. A career highlight of his was becoming the first hip hop artist to be signed to the predominantly punk and alternative rock label Epitaph Records. It is more than evident why Epitaph saw Francis as a natural fit for their roster, as albums such as Human the Death Dance display an ability to take inspiration from punk rock and emo. This is apparent in both the instrumentals as well as his vocal delivery, which ranges from hard hitting aggression to downright morosity. His willingness to show emotional vulnerability in his lyrics as early on as the mid 2000s makes him a key precursor to the current trend of “emo rap” embodied by artists such as Trippie Redd and the late Lil Peep. However, whilst most of these modern emo rappers place an emphasis on the overall aesthetic of their music instead of lyrical prowess, Francis has consistently been one of the most lyrically engaging artists in underground hip hop, showcasing a talent for storytelling that often veers into conventional poetry.
His versatility was highlighted even further on studio album Li(f)e, which saw Francis experiment with folk and indie rock. Unlike the previously mentioned Milo merely sampling from these genres, Francis went to the extent of co-writing songs with several notable members of the indie rock scene, collaborating with musicians from bands such as Death Cab for Cutie and Sparklehorse. The undoubted highlight from this venture is The Best of Times, which is one of the most staggeringly beautiful hip hop songs you will ever hear. Sage Francis is an underappreciated trailblazer in hip hop, a unique voice who you owe it to yourself to try.

Brother Ali
Whilst Brother Ali is not the only artist on this list who is notable for his highly politicised music, he is perhaps unique in his ability to remain distinctly optimistic in the process. Make no mistake though, this has not stopped him being utterly scathing of the US political system and verbally tearing it to shreds in the process. The most infamous example of this is his song Uncle Sam Goddamn, featuring lyrics like “Welcome to the United Snakes/ Land of the thief, home of the slave” which provide so searing an attack on his home country, that its music video even provoked ire from America’s Department of Homeland Security.
However, alongside such damning indictments of the state of the US, he provides a message of hope rooted in the ability to overcome adversity. This is undoubtedly based in his conversion to Islam as a teenager, which as such has become a driving force in both his life and lyrics. Whilst this initially may seem to run the risk of being overly preachy, Ali is skilled enough on the mic that this is never the case. His later material, in actual fact, is some of the most uplifting hip hop you are likely to hear. His sound is largely defined by soulful production which makes a lot of his output very easy on the ear, yet he also has his fair share of harder hitting tracks, especially earlier on in his discography. This ability to showcase his skill on a range of sounds makes him deserving of being part of the Rhymesayers label, which is also home to the aforementioned Aesop Rock, Atmosphere and formerly the legendary MF DOOM. Brother Ali is more than worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as these artists.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Trump’s Syria U-turn: Is History Repeating Itself?

Charlie Avery | 20/05/2018

“I want to get out”, stated President Trump in a White House press conference in early April, “I want to bring our troops back home”. He was referring to his decision to withdraw American ground forces from Syria as the “task” of defeating Islamic State draws towards an apparent conclusion. Mr Trump, who generally opposes US military intervention as part of his ‘America First’ approach to foreign policy, indicated to aides that he wanted all two thousand US troops currently stationed in Syria to return home within six months.

However, just under two weeks later, the President had authorised a fresh round of missile strikes against Syrian government forces. This came days after President Bashar al-Assad, a close ally of Moscow, unleashed a suspected chemical attack against civilians in the rebel-held town of Douma, located just outside Damascus. 
            Such a sudden, and dramatic change in Trump’s position on Syria mirrors the events of almost exactly a year before, when he ordered strikes against the Shayrat airbase, following a sarin gas poisoning. In both cases, his statements were highly emotive, invoking images of innocence and family, justifying bombing raids on the grounds that such atrocities cannot be allowed to go unanswered. This time, though, it has triggered a stronger commitment from Washington to “sustain” military pressure against the Syrian regime.

Yet evidence of mass executions, torture and attacks against civilian targets is already widespread. According to humanitarian organisations from Amnesty International to the UN’s Human Rights Council, who have documented the seven-year conflict since it began, Syrian government forces have committed war crimes since as early as 2012.

The U-turn of early April was simply the latest development in an ever-unfolding history of American policy in Syria, a history characterised by inconsistency. This trend spans, not merely the seven years during which the complex and bloody conflict has ravaged the country, but seven decades of American interest in the Middle Eastern nation.

Having taken a “special interest” in the nascent Syrian state after the Second World War, the US played an active role in training the newly formed national army. However, as regional tensions escalated in response to emergent conflicts in Palestine, all military support was withdrawn, for fears of American expertise and weaponry being used against Israel, their favoured new ally.

After supporting democracy in Syria since its independence in 1946, the Truman administration helped orchestrate a coup d’état three years later, replacing the democratically elected al-Quwatli with army commander Husni al-Za’im. al-Za’im, part of the Alawi minority, offered to further Washington’s strategic regional interests, namely acquiescing to peace talks with Israel and banning Communism. Most notably, however, he agreed to the installation of the trans-Arabia pipeline on Syrian territory, something his fiercely nationalistic predecessor would never have sanctioned.

Some historians have traced the origins of today’s civil war back to the 1949 coup, pointing to the resultant dominance of Alawite military leaders within Syria’s turbulent political affairs. Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, Joshua Landis, writes: “The reason there is a civil war today is because much of the Sunni majority rose up in protest and wanted to get rid of this Alawite military dictatorship”

Islamic fundamentalism
In recent history, American Middle Eastern policy has been characterised by its staunch opposition to Islamic extremism, notably using Syria as a location for some of its infamous ‘Black Sites’ during the War On Terror. In coordination with the Assad regime, suspected terrorists were beaten, tortured and indefinitely detained for information which was allegedly passed to US officials on the hunt for Muslim extremists.

Although its stance upon radical Islam is now steadfast, documents uncovered from an elite CIA-MI6 working group in 1957 reveal that the former intended to “augment tension” in Syria through the militarisation of “political factions”. The strategy was later employed with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan under the Reagan administration. In this instance, “factions” referred to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood which, at the time, remained a largely peaceful organisation. US intelligence officials had hoped to use the context of violent unrest to justify a foreign intervention from pro-Western Jordan or Iraq, so as to destabilise the anti-Western Ba’athist-Communist government. 
            Despite the fact that the plans were subsequently cancelled, the documents shed light upon the America’s conflicted record regarding Syrian self-determination and its historical stance towards radical Islamic groups.

Timber Sycamore
Jumping forward to 2012, in spite of Obama’s initially firm stance against further covert intervention in the escalating civil war, the US changed its course of action once again. He sanctioned a CIA program (codenamed Timber Sycamore) which trained and supplied arms to rebel groups, aiming to blunt the advances of the Syrian regime.

Although it brought fleeting periods of success, the $1-billion-dollar plan has proven vastly ineffective, particularly since the relentless, overt Russian bombing campaign began in 2015. Critics point to the fact that Timber Sycamore has flooded the Middle Eastern black market with weapons, allowing guns to fall into the hands of al-Qaeda affiliates like the Nusra Front who often fight alongside rebel forces. The program was cancelled by Trump last year.

Charles Lister, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute, concluded that the Obama administration “never gave it the necessary resources or space to determine the dynamics of the battlefield. They were drip-feeding opposition groups just enough to survive but never enough to become dominant actors.”

Few commentators can predict what the Trump administration’s next move will be: “his preferences are still unpredictable in the extreme”. Examining Syria’s relations with the United States over the years only serves to confirm such uncertainty. As George Bernard Shaw rather poignantly summarised, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.".

America’s erratic policy record towards this Middle Eastern state transcends presidents and their respective ideologies. Mr Trump may have actually named his approach to international relations “America first” but, regarding Syria, administrations past and present have demonstrated that this has always been the case. While its current conflict is undeniably complex, the constantly shifting stance of the US and its Western allies makes Syria’s future all the more unclear.