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Review: Music
Revolutionary Volume I & II by Immortal Technique

By Olivia O'Neill

Hip hop's not dead - It's just buried in the underground

The commercialisation of Hip-Hop and Rap music, originally a class-conscious music bred in US ghettos, is one of the biggest tragedies to hit music and contemporary culture.

Immortal TechniqueNow one of the most popular and widely acclaimed forms of music amongst working-class youth globally, it has abandoned its original community consciousness and sense of grievances by tumbling into the hands of sleazy money-makers, glorifying equally squalid gang-violence, misogyny and drug-dealing. Music is a reflection of the conditions and experiences of everyday life. In this regard we value musicians that have kept close-ties to their community roots and whose ideas are based on the everyday experiences of working people.

Unfortunately the bulk of these musicians remain underground for that very reason. Rapper Immortal Technique who lived most of his life on the streets of Harlem is one example of an artist that has kept these close ties. He displays a great strength and skill in attacking the system under which we live as well as lamenting the grievances faced by black people in ghetto America.

Immortal Technique was born in Peru, South America. His family fled from Peru as civil war broke out in the early 1980s and moved to the streets of Harlem. Yet far from believing this was an escape, Immortal Technique instead exposes the ghettos are the United States’ own third world, a theme that towers over the various journeys and inroads his lyrics explore on a social level.

Living in the poverty, unemployment, drug and gang problems in Harlem and being aware of the crisis in Latin America has shaped his anger and radicalism. His two albums of the past four years Revolutionary Volume I and II are dominated by political anger and radicalism but also a sad reflection on the harrowing experiences of crime-ridden unemployment and drug dealing.

Revolutionary Vol. IOne of his most famous releases "Dance with the Devil" (Revolutionary Vol I) reminisces on a single night in the life of a young gang-member who is coerced into raping a woman of the neighbourhood. The purpose of the song is to show the horrific self-destructiveness of capitalist society in one youth’s quest to gain power through desperate measures, someone "who’s primary concern was making a million… the product of a ghetto-bred capitalistic mental[ity]". Throughout the song the phrase "there’s no diversity because we’re burning in the melting pot" is repeated, effectively creating the sense that society is doomed under these conditions.

The attack on mainstream rappers who’ve abandoned their communities and preach backward and harmful ideas to young people is epitomised in the song "Jedi Mind Tricks". "Your mind is empty and spacious like the part of the brain that appreciates culture in a racist. Face it, you’re too basic, you’re never going to make it." Perhaps the most glaring statement in his lyrics is the one that says that successful rappers should be ashamed of their lack of politics and apathy in the current political situation.

Revolutionary Vol. IIThis rapper’s radical politics and aggressive protest formulated in his songs, are not something seen commonly in music. Even the political folk-songs that are of course valuable, are dated and irrelevant to many young people. Virtually no other contemporary genre has put forward political views in such a straightforward way since punk. In the song "Freedom of Speech", the rapper refers to his difficulty in finding a record deal that would take his music out of the underground clubs of Harlem and Brooklyn and publicise it all over the world. The song is an angry rejection of the control massive US corporations have over Hip-Hop artists that were effectively forced to diminish any loaded political statements. Even rapper Eminem’s most political songs were banned by MTV and radio so he retreated to the more radio-friendly sexism and poor humour.

Immortal Technique attacks the entire political and media establishment in "Freedom" (Vol II) revealing the exact nature of how music and its messages are controlled. The more controversial "Bin Laden" (Vol II) is more developed, making genuine political statements about the occupation of Iraq and particularly the resistance movement.

They say the rebels in Iraq still fight for Saddam
But I’ll show you why that’s totally wrong
Because if another country invaded the hood tonight
There’d be warfare through Harlem and Washington Heights
I wouldn’t be fighting for Bush or White America’s Dream
I’d be fighting for my people's survival and self-esteem
I wouldn’t be fighting for racist churches from the South
I’d be fighting to keep the occupation out

Immortal Technique and his music portray the radicalisation that is spreading amongst working-class youth throughout the USA. It is a refreshing light shed amidst the apathetic mainstream that dominates the media today. Yet additionally, throughout the catalogue of his music there are tones of provocation in demanding a need to get organised. His music offers a positive and pro-active answer to the harsh realities of capitalism.

To hear some of Tech's work, check out www.immortal-technique.com and www.immortaltechnique.co.uk.


[Webmaster's note: For my money, Tech's finest song (musically and lyrically) is probably "Peruvian Cocaine" which uses various characters' narration to trace the the flow of cocaine from the oppressed peasant harvesting the cocoa for a drug cartel ("Dreaming about revolution, lookin' at my machete"), through the corrupt political elites ("I had two governments overthrown to keep our son in a private school and our bellies swollen") and finally onto the streets of a US ghetto ("Ain't no Uzi's made in Harlem. Not one of us in here owns a poppy field... This is Big Business... This is the American Way").]


Review: Book
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell

By Kate Rehilan

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell is an extraordinary book. Tressell recreates the fear, grinding poverty and deprivation that was a reality for the working class of Britain at the turn of the 20th century with conviction, humour and brutal honesty.

This absorbing book charts the daily life of the people of Mugsborough over the course of a year, a town steeped in the irrationality and hypocrisy of capitalism.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell Robert Tressell was born in Dublin in 1870 to a middle class family. He moved to South Africa to work in the building industry before returning to England in 1901 to work as a painter in Hastings where life was precarious due to the constant threat of unemployment and were the working day was long and badly paid. He died in 1911 and was buried in a pauper’s grave which was only marked with a tombstone in 1977.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was written in his spare time between 1906 – 1910 about the workers of the building and painting trades in the fictional town of Mugsborough. Tressell wrote about the other side of the greatest, wealthiest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen. He wrote about the abject poverty, poor housing, sickness and unemployment that were daily enemies of the working class.

This book is an ingenious satirical feat on how the working class are the true philanthropists and how they are unaware of their generosity to their "betters" through the trick of capitalism and so their fate is to remain ragged trousered. Tressell identifies the root cause of the horrendous poverty, inequality and injustice of Mugsborough to be that of capitalism and counter-poses the necessity for a socialist society.

This is accomplished by way of Frank Owen, the central character, a painter/decorator, a ragged trousered philanthropist and an ardent socialist who throughout the book educates and enlightens his fellow workmates on the ferocity of the profit-seeking capitalist system – a system where it "is necessary to be brutal, selfish and unfeeling" to succeed. This is contrasted to the virtues of socialism, a co-operative commonwealth where "no man will find profit in another’s loss."

Through the injustices suffered by Owen and his fellow philanthropists the reader comes to realise the callousness of the unscrupulous, vicious foremen like "Misery" and "Hunter". Tressell explains the reign of terror prevailed on all jobs where foremen pushed for higher profits by making the men work faster, cut corners and lower standards through the threat of instant dismissal. He describes how they were always trying to exploit the poorest and most vunerable of workers by "charitably" employing them, but on a lower rate than the rest, whilst apprentices like the low paid “Bert” were driven like work horses.

With a taut descriptive style and exemplary use of satire, Tressell lifts the veil on the daily lives of workmen and their bosses, the anxieties, collisions, survival strategies, the humour, the gossip and the practical jokes and their endless battle with "time."

The book reveals a litany of never ending catastrophies for the working class who sweat, toil and scrape for up to 80 hours a week. The fruits of their labour give them nothing but semi-starvation, eviction and premature death. Tressell illuminates this poignantly when he tells of the suicide of a man, his wife and two children who took their own lives rather than suffer any longer. The blood smeared note left behind declared: "This is not my crime but society’s."

Tressell, through Owen goes on to explain the root cause of poverty being the private monopoly of capitalism, landlordism and competing employers and dispels the myth that poverty is caused by drink, laziness and over-population as the establishment claims. This same establishment – or 40 thieves, as Tressell calls them – further their own private greed through apparently benevolent public measures, charity being the favourite. Tressell discloses the real hypocrisy and humiliation behind charity which only serves to pauperise those who receive it, and yet this same charity always "kept a good balance in hand because of the secretary’s salary and the rent of the offices."

The book also satirises and savagely attacks the insincere psalm-singers, lay and clerical, from "Mrs Starvem” to “Lord Belcher” who use religion to promote laissez-faire capitalist values and acceptance by the working class of their own exploitation.

What enrages Owen throughout the novel is the resignation and acceptance by the working class of this brutal system that robs them daily of their dignity and labour. This is the lot of 67 year-old Jack Linden, who slogged all his life only to die a pauper and who believed that the pleasures of life "were not for the likes of ‘im."

This book is a timeless masterpiece. Timeless, in that the cause of the poverty and exploitation of the working class in the 21st Century is caused by the same economic and political system which enslaved the workers of Mugsborough. The answer to ending that exploitation is still the same as that argued for by Tressell through his wonderfully crafted character Owen – socialism.


Review: Book
In the Casa Azul by Meaghan Delahunt

By Carol Barnett

Meaghan Delahunt’s book "In the Casa Azul" (the blue house) is a fictional historical novel describing the period of Trotsky’s exile in Mexico and the events leading up to both his death in 1940 and Stalin’s in 1953.

Readers may find it difficult to initially "get into" this book.

Its structure is fragmented, chapters dart from one time period to another and sometimes swiftly from character to character making it at first difficult to follow.

In the Casa Azul by Meaghan Delahunt The book begins with the funeral of the artist Frida Kahlo with whom Trotsky had a brief love affair and whose husband, Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, had influenced the Mexican government to admit Trotsky as an exile in 1937. There is an underlying theme throughout the book portraying Trotsky as a lovesick teenager so obsessed with Kahlo that he thinks about her all the time and had prepared to leave his wife for her. In contrast, Trotsky’s wife Natalia is portrayed as showing unswerving love and devotion and willing to overlook the personal sacrifices she made in her choice to be with Trotsky.

Although the inconsistencies pre-revolution between wealth and poverty are acknowledged, the book portrays Trotsky and Stalin as two men with inflated egos who ruined the country with their conflicting ideas without any analysis into the revolution and its aftermath. We read clips from Trotsky’s father unable to understand why Trotsky wanted to change the system and Stalin’s wife who becomes uncomfortable with her husband’s role in the system and his paranoid behaviour about being betrayed. It also reflects on one of Stalin’s many defects – a deficiency of imagination and inflexibility.

Other characters in the book portray the life of the men who fought for the revolution and were then hunted down and executed. She contrsts the engineer who was responsible for overseeing the building of the new luxurious metro system using marble and chandeliers to become the symbol of the new Moscow with the lives of the workers who worked on it including many political prisoners who lived in poverty conditions.

Despite some of the factual inaccuracies of the book, it is well written and for those who have little knowledge of the Russian revolution, it gives an easy to read account of the personal lives of two major historical figures that may whet the appetite for more knowledge of them and the people who surrounded them.

The book does not explain any of Trotsky’s political ideas and, as it portrays him as someone who is egotistical and prone to mood swings if things aren’t quite right for him, it is dangerous in that readers are given an unbalanced view about who Trotsky was. For readers who have studied Trotsky and this period the book gives a flavour of the personal minutiae of daily life but this is the extent of its substance.


Review: Book
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

By Helen Redwood

Mistry's book is primarily set during the State of Emergency declared by Indira Ghandi in India, 1975, to curtail a growing and widespread movement for civil and land rights.

The reader is, however, taken back for a brief time to the 1950s, and the vicious inter-communal violence that erupted between Hindus and Muslims around the time of partition. India is generally presented as the world’s largest succesful democracy, but through his up-close inspection of individual lives, the emerging picture is one of a society permeated by savage repression and corruption. It is a very worthwhile and absorbing read.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry The lives of two tailors, Ishvar and Om, give the reader an insight into the brutal realities of the caste system. They come from the ‘untouchable’, Chamaar, caste and their family fall victim to the worst type of violence, even murder, which upper caste people clearly felt at liberty to perpetrate. At election time, villagers would be herded into the election booths to put their thumbprint on voting papers, which were then collected up and filled in by upper caste leaders. Abolition of the caste system in law made little difference to these villagers. Their story is one of trying to break out of the traditional role of their caste, when their fathers send them off to a Muslim tailor friend to teach them his trade.

Dina Dalal is a Parsi woman who, in another way, is also trying to break away from her traditionally alotted role. In the face of a despotic brother who, as head of the family, denies her an education and tries to marry her off to one of his friends, she struggles to maintain an independent existence. Dina eventually chooses her own husband, but when she is later widowed, she has to learn hairdressing and tailoring skills to get by on her own.

We get a glimpse of the stratification of society when she takes in a student lodger, Maneck, who is struck by how poor looking her accommodation is. We also know how precarious are her efforts to maintain a living. Dina has to be sure not to offend Mrs Gupta, the right-wing business woman who provides her with cloth and patterns, which she subcontracts out for making-up to then export to a French fashion house. Mrs Gupta typifies that section of business who supported the State of Emergency, seeing it as bringing and end to "troublesome unions" and restoring order and discipline within society. In contrast, the two Chamaar tailors Dina hires to help her fulfil Mrs Gupta’s orders, who are forced to live in a disgusting slum shack, describe Dina as " a rich Parsi woman".

Maneck gives the reader some insight into the world of young people. In college he befriends the leader of the student union, Avanash, who becomes increasingly involved in political action which was sweeping the colleges and society before the crackdown. Employing the ‘double-speak’ of capitalism, sinister societies given misnomers like "Students Against Fascism" begin to appear as government agents infiltrate the colleges. Eventually, Avanash disappears, as did so many government oppositionists at that time. Maneck, remaining painfully naïve, refuses to get involved. Only later do we see a dawning politicisation when he is confronted with the rabid elitism and anti-union rantings of the right-wing as represented by Dina Dalal’s businessman brother Nusswan.

Each broad section of society is given a voice from the top down, although Mistry’s sympathy clearly rests with the most downtrodden. A beggar, Shankar, consigned to the begging industry from birth, and deliberately mutilated during childhood to improve begging potential, is given a humanity not normally attributed to someone who is so brushed aside by society.

The horrors perpetrated under the State of Emergency become focused through the harrowing experiences of these central characters. Bulldozers flatten slum dwellings in the name of the government "Beautification" programme, leaving workers and jobless alike to sleep on the streets. The police sweep through poor communities rounding up these fresh street dwellers alongside the weak and hungry whose homes have been the street for much longer. They then cart them off to do hard labour, their only pay being night shelter and food that’s barely recognisable as such. Young and old are rounded up for barbaric forced sterilisation as quotas fail to be reached through bribes and persuasion. Many fell victim to unsterile equipment and operating facilities.

At one point one of the characters does reflect on the possiblities of resisting these atrocities if everyone would only act together, but the book really ends on a note of despair. The last chapter is entitled "The Circle is Completed" – despite the perseverance of people to conquer adversity, events overwhelm them. A Fine Balance is after all a novel, written as a tragedy not a political analysis or a call to action – although if this exposé of capitalism in the raw doesn’t stir the blood, I don’t know what will.