I covered this show for The Vinyl District.
Kollaboration DC’s annual concert was a dazzling showcase of talent that transcended genre boundaries and shattered preconceptions.
Founded eleven years ago, Kollaboration is an Asian-American non-profit organization whose motto, “empowerment through entertainment” truly embodies its ethos—to present the public with positive, and more importantly, accurate images of Asian-Americans.
While community empowerment is integral to its mission, the entertainment aspect weighs equally heavily in the equation, to the benefit of anyone who has ever attended any of Kollaboration’s musical events. Saturday’s show at the University of The District of Columbia was a well-organized, rollicking affair, whose contest format did not in any sense harken of dreaded American Idol overtones or, even worse, stereotypical talent show fodder—because everyone in it was ridiculously talented.
University of Maryland’s classical Indian dance troupe Moksha delivered a Mahabharata-in-motion, thunderous, ebullient routine. It was traditional, yet it was modern. It was classical, yet it was avant-garde. It was definitely breathtaking.
There were genre-mashups galore—Phillip Chang proved equally adept at piano, singing, and b-boy moves. Alec Zhang and Emily Barnes danced an ethereal waltz. Chip Han’s beat-boxing sounded turntable-enviable. Lionz of Zion, a local break-dancing crew, which includes Geoffrey “ToyzRUs” Chang, roared forth with a stunning, gravity-be-damned routine. Local rapper Sickboi, and fellow MC Lyricks, are definitely putting Virginia hip-hop on the map.
Kollaboration DC was a true celebration of spirit and community and, ultimately, a reminder that talent grows and flourishes even in the often-described-as-stodgy Washington DC.
July 19, 2011
Sulu DC’s Saturday showcase Miss Fortune: Spotlight on AAPI Women in Hip-Hop was a vibrant celebration of the true ethos of hip hop: community.
Funded in part by the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and presented in conjunction with a number of community partners including Kollaboration DC, it was a tightly-run, eclectic showcase of talent that shattered stereotypes and expectations. If the only Asian MC you can name is Jin, you should have been at this show because while the artists were, yes, female, and yes, Asian-American, their viewpoints and styles were illustrative of the fact that these reductionistic labels are not keys to the grand creative milieu.
As spoken word artist and the show’s MC, Kelly Tsai put it, being a feminist and listening to most hip-hop often requires “selective listening” skills. As good fortune would have it, all you needed at this show was an open mind and open ears. The show was about girl power without being about girl power [the commercial version].
Sulu DC’s event was subversive by its very nature—where else can you go nowadays to hear Queen Latifah and Monie Love played [as spun by Sulu resident DJ The Pinstriped Rebel]!? The female artists took “Asian-American” and “female” from disenfranchised to identity-affirming, and all with a positive, uplifting stroke of the pen. It was definitely a “U.N.I.T.Y.” moment if there ever was one.
Spoken-word artist Kelly Tsai opened the show with her powerful piece “Real Women I Know” and kept the festivities moving with flair and comedic panache.
Kickrocks Crew, a local dance troupe, performed a hip-hop dance medley and got the crowd amped.
The true scene stealers of the show were a violin-and-MC sister duo from Brooklyn, Misnomer(S). Their powerhouse, raucous performance turned the oh-so-familiar cultural cliché of the violin-playing Asian kid on its head and then some. Knewdles and SOS’ natural synergy was palpable and single-handedly nudged the strings-and-hip hop paradigm out of its slumber [especially if P. Diddy’s cheesetastic tunes are what you are thinking of right now].
Knewdles described the theme of Misnomer(S)’ music as “identity”—the duo opened with the thought-provoking “For What It’s Worth,” which Knewdles explained was originally a piece that won her second-place in a slam poetry contest and first got her interested in MCing. “I was a poet before I was an emcee and I studied poetry in college.” She cites fellow Brooklynite Biggie as one of her major influences. “For What It’s Worth” could well be the anthem of the dual-identity generation—as an immigrant myself, Knewdles’ frustration with constantly being asked “no, where are you *really* from” and other equally inane off-shoots as “go back to your own country” [which, in her case, is America-doh!] rings especially true. Misnomer(S)’ music is refreshingly devoid of braggadocio and focused on relatable themes: living and working. In fact, their song “Worker Bee,” is one of the cleverest takes I have heard on the drone aspect of working to live and living to work, complete with smart references to Asian exploitation and the Chinese building railroads.
Knewdles’ passionate delivery, clearly well-honed from her stint in the slam circuit, inflects their music with a creative, indelibly feminine cadence and makes the duo really stand out in the indie hip hop circuit, along with fellow New Yorkers like Cool Calm Pete. If anything, it showcases that being confrontational and in-your-face is not requisite for delivering a social message or having something of value to say.
The show closed out with headliner Rocky Rivera, a seasoned MC from the Bay Area, who rapped like she had been at this for eons—with a professional, precise delivery that most male MCs would have been envious of, especially when one considers how hard it is to sound live like one sounds on record [have you ever been to a Wu Tang concert? Yeah, about that…]. With tons of swagger and style, Rocky evoked the golden days of Lil’ Kim. Her performance of “La Madrina” and “Married To The Hustle” got the crowd properly hyped.
SuluDC have artist showcases every month—definitely support their upcoming events!
Brooklyn production duo CREEP sound like the lovechild of She Wants Revenge and Poe, with some of The xx and Garbage thrown in for good measure. You can finally feel good about breaking out the dark eyeliner and gothing out without having to reassure yourself and others that you are being meta, tongue-in-cheek, or subversive about it, and you are not really a [closet] Goth. [Is there such a thing as a non-closet Goth, btw?] Well, raise the black flag, my friends, and trash that VNV Nation record because CREEP are here to meet all of your needs.
CREEP are producers/DJs Lauren Flax and Lauren Dillard. Flax is an internationally-renowned house DJ and producer—one of her bigger recent hits was “You’ve Changed” with Sia on vocals. Her experience as Fischerspooner’s tour DJ clearly lends itself well to CREEP’s creepy synth-driven sensibilities, but the group’s sound is indelibly ethereally beautiful even through the cold mechanics of a foundation.
CREEP’s spectral debut single “Days” featuring The xx’s Romy Madley-Croft came out earlier this year. The refrain of “Are you thinking the same things I do?/ I been thinking about me and you/ My nights are turning into days/ But I don’t know since everything changed” is really descriptive of the ethos of CREEP’s music. Nights turn into days, dreamscapes unfold, miasmas shimmer in and out, lost souls find and lose each other, love and loss are different sides of the same coin. There is lots of smoke and mirrors, and reality is too tenuous to look for.
The follow-up “You” is a stunning showcase of R&B superstar twins Nina Sky’s interweaving vocals. The video, under the genius direction of Thalia Mavros, could not be a more apt visual piece for the song. If there ever was a video that lives and breathes chiaroscuro, this is it. Shadows fall away and take over—what is black or white, is there even an answer… Faces fade in and out. You will probably notice some very Shining-esque shots and maybe even an homage to Asian horror. Either way—it’s hypnotic, sinister, and terribly engrossing.
DFA’s Planningtorock recently released the remix of “You.” Check it out and get the MP3 where it premiered on RCRD LBL .
Don’t let the upcoming full-length release creep up on you—the record will grab you with a vengeance.
Trip hop has long been a turntablist’s game, even if the most obvious examples you can think of are Geoff Barrow’s scratching on Portishead’s “Only You” or the seminal DJ Shadow Endtroducing. In the early 2000s, artists like DJ Krush, RJD2, Nujabes, and DJ Vadim continued to carry the torch, despite public opinion that “trip hop was dead” or relegated to Buddha Bar compilations. It is in this vein that LA-based producer TOKiMONSTA (Jennifer Lee) makes her pastiche of beats and samples.
Tokimonsta cut her teeth on a myriad of fresh remixes with a signature sound—anything from Tweet’s “Call Me,” to Lykke Li’s “Little Bit” and Telepopmusik’s “Breathe.” She released a ton of mixtapes and toured, paying some major dues in the process. Her diminutively adorable moniker terribly apt, Tokimonsta is a Godzilla on the wheels of steel and clearly knows more than a thing or two about crate-digging, scratching, and creating really naturally flowing sample soundscapes.
The Creature Dreams EP finds Tokimonsta on an even more consistent course with her sound than her last full-length album, 2010’s Midnight Creatures. “Bright Shadows,” “Little Pleasures,” and “Darkest[Dim]“ are three of the standout tracks on the EP, and they feature singer Gavin Turek. “Day Job” is another equally beautiful track—as a whole, the album is consistent in its excellence and is very un-California-esque in that it’s late-night listening alright. It is not a dark record—it’s maybe moderately melancholy in its dusty vinyl ambiance, but it is easily one of the best and most consistently “trip hop” albums to come out in recent years. Definitely worth a spin!
Weight Of Chains review
The Muslim Film Festival held in Washington, D.C. from April 19th to 27th, 2011 and organized by the American Islamic Congress and Project Nur presents a diverse group of five films under the general rubric of Generation: Muslim. Considering the fact that an estimated 65% of the world Muslim population is under the age of 30, the films embody a youthful, vibrant ethos and offer a glimpse into a world that is quite removed from the plucked-from-the-headlines “angry young Arab man” stereotype—simply put, they show that subversive is not equal to “angry mob.” The protagonists in the films break dance, play in indie rock bands, paint graffiti, throw punk rock shows and, in general, provide quite refreshing, nuanced, and trenchant answers to the question of what it means to be a Muslim. To an audience bombarded with images of the Islamic world’s troubled relationship with Western culture, the Muslim Film Festival paints a picture of diversity and narrates how Islam fits and lives within the social fabric of Western settings.
The 2009 Cannes Film Festival Special Jury Prize selection No One Knows About Persian Cats explores the difficulties Iranian youth face in trying to produce and perform rock music—it’s a breathless expose on a cat-and-mouse game but the movie does not take on a fatalistic, cynical view of that. If anything, it shows that even under repressive regimes, there is such a strong undercurrent of creativity—case in point, Iran has metal and indie rock bands, too, and even Sufi musicians who have to record their music underground.
The Tunisian Making Of is an interesting meta-approach-taking film-within-a-film about the making of a film about the radicalization of youth. It frames in a rather innovative way the question of just how that could take place.
The 2010 Oscar Nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Un Prophete, screening on Wednesday, April 27, is a tour-de-force thriller of a young Muslim man’s experience in a French prison and his alliance with the Corsican mob.
The 2010 Sundance Film Festival selection The Taqwacores, directed by Eyad Zahra, depicts the electrifying underground subculture of Muslim punk-rockers in Buffalo, NY. Based on the Michael Muhammad Knight’s 2003 cult novel The Taqwacores, the movie does an incredible job of portraying the ultimate in-your-face punch of the mashing of two “counter-mainstream-cultural,” if you will, phenomena—being punk and being Muslim in America. Zahra’s direction is superb in showing us that the characters in the movie are not on some contrived faux-rebellion tip against society—if anything, they are simply living only as they know how and accepting in a sort of resigned, almost cynical way that simply being who they are by definition makes them subversive. As the pink-mohawked guitarist Jehangir (Dominic Rains) puts it, he is the embodiment of “mismatching of disenfranchised subcultures.”
In addition to the absolutely stunning cinematography [the movie’s cadence is really unique and true to its ’80s zine-punk aesthetic], the cast of characters is thrilling to watch—there is shy Yusef (Bobby Naderi), an engineering student, ever- angry, moral-enforcing straight-edger Umar (Nav Mann), and Rabeya (Noureen DeWulf), a burqa-wearing feminist-of-sorts, whose attire baffles even her roommates but who Jehangir simply sums up as “must be the kind of girl who reads in a burqa.” When Jehangir decides to put on a punk show, hosting Muslim punk bands from “Khalifornia,” [the soundtrack of the movie features those real bands, btw], things get ugly in a good and bad [punk] sense. The Taqwacores is also full of clever, funny dialogue such as Jehangir’s description of the chastity battle as a “jihad against my nuts.” Ultimately, the theme is that even through the rebellion and struggle, there is an ever present thread of faith and spirituality–“Allah is too big and too open for my Islam to be small and closed.”
Director Eyad Zahra commented that, “I was not certain that this film would be ‘Islamically-accepted’ but there has been no negative response to it. It has seen nothing but good.” If there is any message, he expounded, it is that “the Muslim community is wide and diverse.” The paradigm of “big tent” underscores the very pluralistic nature of Islam and the DC Muslim Film Fest’s film selections showcase both the struggles and triumphs of being Muslim in a modern context. The take-away message from the Festival was that through the struggle of defining one’s identity in a subcultural vs. mainstream sense and even with the difficulty of discrimination and repression, the “performance” of a Muslim identity takes many different forms and in the process raises a series of incredibly interesting questions.
The title of “Happythankyoumoreplease” is quite apropos — you will leave the theater grateful and wanting more of its offbeat charm. If you are already groaning at the prospect of yet another contrived indie rom-com à la “500 Days Of Summer” or the movie version of “Friends” or the millennials’ answer to “Singles,” you will find yourself pleasantly surprised.
In “Happythankyoumoreplease,” director, writer and star Josh Radnor (“How I Met Your Mother”) forgoes the hipper-and-more-clever-than-thou approach in favor of an unassuming, natural dialogue and genuinely likable characters. And if there is such a thing as a New York “vibe,” the movie captures it spot-on.
The lead character, Sam (Radnor), is an aspiring novelist on the way to a meeting with a publisher who meets a boy named Rasheen (Michael Algieri) who gets separated from his family on the train. As a plot vehicle, Rasheen and Sam’s relationship is meant to assure us of Sam’s inherent goodness despite his ne’er-do-well, seemingly rakish lifestyle, delivering some of the more heart-warming, cute lines in the movie.
For example, Sam labels his suburban angst-free childhood as hardly “Dickensian” or conducive to writing the great American novel. Or when Sam discovers Rasheen’s art talents, he laughs at Rasheen’s drawing of him as a “dashing Russian aristocrat.” These sort of exchanges abound and make the movie terribly endearing with a low cheese factor.
The other characters are equally compelling. Mary Catherine (Zoe Kazan) and her boyfriend Charlie (Pablo Schreiber), who try to decide whether or not to move to Los Angeles, which Mary calls the “epicenter of all that is awful.” Sam’s best friend Annie (Malin Akerman) is bemoaning her unfortunate choice in men, (dating “29-year-old 12-year-olds”) when she meets a seemingly dorky co-worker who seems to constantly hang out on her floor at work because “philanthropic giving is the cool place to be.”
Annie tells this story of an Indian cab driver-would-be-guru who advises her that a good way to perpetuate more gratitude in the universe is to simply say, “Thank you. More please.” Albeit hokey as far as mantras go, it’s veritable enough for hippie-esque Annie, who in the end gets over her abysmal dating streak and allows herself to be wooed by the uncool Sam #2.
Then, there is Sam’s love interest, waitress and cabaret singer Mississippi (Kate Mara), whose refusal to sleep with Sam due to her New Year’s avowal to “not be a whore” leads to their impossibly-cute three-day-stand/move-in session, complete with a hand-written contract and key exchange.
The characters in “Happythankyoumoreplease” feel very realistic with no tacked-on, contrived idiosyncrasies for entertainment’s sake. It’s definitely a feel-good movie, but not in a mawkish, fake sense. In the end, the characters all end up working through their various conflicts, but the resolutions are not fanciful and unrealistic.
Can one outrun one’s fate? The Adjustment Bureau answers that question quite literally. Based on the short story “The Adjustment Team” by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, the film is a sci-fi-tinged romance not unlike Gattaca or Code 46 in its ethos, and despite its fairly gravitas subject matter, it is incredibly entertaining and captivating in its human angle.
Matt Damon stars as a rising political star/Senator candidate David Norris, whose chance encounter with a contemporary modern dancer Elise [Emily Blunt], sets him on an inexorable path. Elise’s character is instantly lovable—she is irreverent, ebullient, and free-spirited. David has a reputation for being a “loose cannon,” but under her influence, he loosens up instead. So, their romance begins until David encounters the men of the Adjustment Bureau, who tell him, “You peeked behind a curtain you weren’t supposed to know exists.” Apparently, it is not according to the “plan” for David and Elise to be together. Even though the plausibility of the level of ardor they have for each from just a few encounters requires a leap of faith, both Damon and Blunt play their roles perfectly and their on-screen chemistry carries the storyline well. There are a couple of silly moments, such as when David is to be prevented from seeing Elise dance by the Adjustment Bureau because he will instantly fall in love with her if he does [gasp—he does], but these minor hiccups do not detract from the overall enjoyability of seeing their relationship grow.
Director George Nolfi’s [Ocean’s Eleven, The Bourne Ultimatum] portrayal of The Adjustment Bureau as fate’s company men is incredibly amusing and easily makes this movie worth seeing for that alone. The use of corporate speak—e.g. the higher being is “The Chairman,” “angels” are “case officers,” “briefcases” are interventions—is really clever and apt in building the mythology. The various adjustments, calibrations, and irregularities are very reminiscent of “glitch in the Matrix” motifs and accessible to the viewer [no elaborate sci-fi mumbo jumbo here]. The droll, English-men-like bureau men have serious jobs, but they certainly have a sense of humor. The dapper bureau men are powerful but not omnipotent—as Harry, one of the bureau’s men who comes to David’s aide explains, it’s all science. They have an interest in making sure humans do not screw up too much, but they cannot read their minds or watch everyone at all times and can only predict outcomes based on the percentage of weights options-ha! Therein lies David and Elise’s out—there is margin for irregularities, chance, and the big one, free will.
The Adjustment Bureau is a thrilling film with just the right mix of sci-fi plot elements and a strong human story—it is clever and funny, without being overbearingly technical or requiring extreme suspension of disbelief.
Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job is a trenchant, chilling expose on the2008 financial meltdown. Like his most recent documentary on the Iraq War, No End In Sight, it is taut, well-researched, highly provocative, and impressive in scope. Ferguson explained that the choices he made in the documentary were with the idea of making the seemingly highly esoteric subject of this particular economic crisis “accessible to all viewers” and he sought to not only narrate what occurred but also in a more current sense, “explain why America is still in such economic difficulty.”
The documentary begins with an apt case-study, Iceland, which Ferguson describes in the film as “one of the purest experiments” in the potential outcomes of de-regulation. The very grim statistic that, at the time, Iceland’s GDP was 10 billion, and bank losses were 130 billion gives viewers a keen grasp of the sheer enormity of the collapse. Inside Job posits that the de-regulation policies begun in 2000 had an adverse effect on both the environment and the economy.
Inside Job presents a well-researched timeline of the series of developments that combined to create the perfect storm. After the Great Depression, the United States experienced 40 years of growth with no economic crises. The landscape began to change in the 1980s. At the time, many investment banks went public. During the Reagan era, de-regulation under Rubin and Summers allowed behemoth mergers to take place, such as the creation of Citigroup, which would have been impossible under the older legal standards set by the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933. The Gramm–Leach–Bliley Act repealed part of that act, opening up the market for the existence of behemoth hybrid banking, securities, and insurance companies. Ferguson then touches upon the long-standing track record of nefarious activity by financial institutions—the litany of culprit banks who were fined for too many things to name and not the least of which for money laundering for corrupt politicians stretches far and wide.
Ferguson does a brilliant job of demystifying the often-heard during the crisis but rarely understood buzzwords of “subprime mortgages,” “mortgage-backed securities,” and “derivatives.” In interviews with a veritable treasure trove of who’s-whos including economists, business-school faculty, Justice Department officials, Federal Reserve chairmen, Congressmen, financial press members, foreign government ministers, he constructs a picture of a massive inter-relationship critical for the viewers’ understanding of why things got as bad as they did. To put it in the most basic terms, Inside Job diagrams that the historical chain of home buyers to lenders was essentially replaced by the home buyers-lenders-investment banks-investors chain, which allowed banks to make riskier and riskier loan offers because they were no longer concerned about the ability of the buyers to repay the loans directly to them. The creation of complex financial instruments such as collateralized debt obligations [CDOs] came hand in hand with increasingly predatory lending since the interest rates on the subprime mortgages were the highest. As early as 1998, people like Brooksley Born, the head of the Commodity Future Trading Commission, feared the consequences of having a 50 trillion unregulated derivates market and lobbied for legislation, but Larry Summers and Alan Greenspan firmly objected to it and none passed. In addition, the relaxation of leverage standards, which passed SEC approval in 2004, allowed unheretofore seen shockingly high levels of borrowed-to-bank money, such as 33:1, having enormous implications for bank liquidity. Combine that with the fact that rating agencies continued to rate CDOs at super high grades [two days before its collapse, Lehman was rated as 2A] and later on washed their hands of this oversight error [to put it mildly] by calling their ratings at Congressional hearings mere “opinions.” In the increasingly complicated picture, the true testament to Wall Street greed was that investment banks were selling and betting against the same CDOs at the same time and routinely deceiving their clients about the quality of the investments. Inside Job also features interviews with the two leading voices of reason—Raghuram Rajan and Nouriel Roubini, who were sounding alarm bells as early as 2005. Rajan, IMF’s former Chief Economist delivered a paper, “Has Financial Development Made the World Riskier” warning of the looming disaster. Other leading economists are also interviewed including Paul Volcker, Andrew Sheng, and Christine Lagard.
Ferguson does not shy away from tackling controversial issues and the courageous gusto with which he peppers his interview subjects with uncomfortable questions is amusingly droll. A major point that the documentary drives home is that almost entirely independent of political lines, the government remains a “Wall Street government,” as Ferguson put it. The fact that the financial industry routinely spends 5 billion in political contributions and the fact that most of the key government economics advisors are former financial industry honchos speaks to how deep this collusion is. Inside Job also delivers a searing indictment on the lack of criminal prosecution for the culprits, who not only walked away free but they walked away with staggering pay packages to the tune of hundreds of millions. Ferguson stated in the discussion after the film that, “the fact these guys are going to get away with this is a major public policy failure.” In further testament to the “structural corruption,” Ferguson also very smartly illustrates the ideological impact of having professors from the top business schools engage in blatant conflict-of-interest activities such as earning 80% of the their income consulting for the very same financial companies that precipitated the crisis.