The Week's Conversations: Apolitical Drake, Butter, Franzen on Munro, Muslim-Canadians on 'Canadian Values,' Facebook, Rural Alberta Advantage
A weekly conversation between friends.
More Life, More Politics
The age-old relationship between hip hop and politics is irrefutable. Birthed as a voice for disenfranchised communities, hip hop has largely held true to its roots through the years. One of the earliest examples of political hip hop was 1982's "The Message" by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, a meticulous narrative of the struggle of life in the Bronx during the Reagan era. In the 80s and 90s, N.W.A., Public Enemy, Tupac, and Nas were just a few of the many artists who used their music to address what they saw wrong in the world. And how can we forget the 2000s; a decade that saw Kanye West take to live TV in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to declare what was on the mind of many: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." The list goes on and on.
With that as our backdrop, Drake's reluctance to discuss political or social issues in his music has been painfully palpable. He is arguably the biggest rapper alive. He sets records with every new release. His cultural influence is monumental. Yet, in the face of everything newsworthy about 2016, Champagne Papi gave us little more than his typical tributes to ex-girlfriends and a few overplayed dance tracks (albeit, all BANGERS). Don't get me wrong, narcissism isn't unusual in hip hop music. In fact, it's almost a prerequisite. Hip hop artists are often self-obsessed in their lyrics, rallying fans that identify with the fabled "rags to riches" struggle. But Drake isn't just any hip hop artist anymore. He's the biggest commercial artist in the world, giving him a colossal platform to discuss things that really matter, and one which he's so far loathed to use.
Drake fans (myself included) will be quick to point out that he has in fact dabbled in social commentary in some recent releases, which I would be remiss not to mention. For example, on "6PM in New York", he raps:
And I heard someone say something that stuck with me a lot
'Bout how we need protection from those protectin' the block
Nobody lookin' out for nobody
Maybe we should try and help somebody or be somebody…
Similarly on "Charged Up", his much-anticipated diss track directed at Meek Mill, Drake claims "Cops are killing people with they arms up / And your main focus is tryna harm us?"
But to call these fleeting references "political commentary" would be an affront to artists like YG and Nipsey Hussle ("FDT") and Eminem ("Campaign Speech"), to name a few, who released some of the most politically-charged tracks amidst the same erratic political climate. So what gives? Some might point to Drake's desire for commercial success being paramount. But selling albums and political engagement are not mutually exclusive. Beyonce's Lemonade was undoubtedly her most political project ever, and was hailed as one 2016's best albums. What's more is she sold 1,527,000 copies, which is coincidentally just shy of Drake's 1,579,000 copies of Views. You can do both. Others refer to his being Canadian as part of the reason. But the man calls L.A. his second home and raps about almost every other aspect of American life, so why not politics?
I think the real answer probably lies with style – more specifically, politics ain't his. Despite what he would have you believe, Drake didn't grow up disenfranchised. He's wasn't subjected to political or civil oppression, and neither were most of those around him. His artistic influences include the likes of Lil Wayne, Aaliyah, and Usher, not the socially-conscious hip hop juggernauts of the 90s who many young rappers cite. That's not to say he didn't have his own struggles, but they weren't political or systemic. They were internal. In other words, he's probably never had much of any reason to be critical of the powers that be. But now, his success puts him in a unique position of being able to be critical and demanding on a world stage, to put words to his fans' feelings about the world around them. I don't think he's ignorant or naïve, or even apathetic. I think he simply doesn’t (yet) know how to reconcile his methodically-crafted brand of narcissism and ostentation, with any semblance of a bona fide and compelling opinion on societal issues. The self-absorbed and egotistical persona was fun for a while, but it's time to move on. The refined, hyper-aware, and socially-conscious role is something he'll have to grow into, like many artists before him. And luckily, there's no shortage of successful and engaged hip hop artists from whom he can take cues.
I've always said (to pretty much everyone's dismay) that Drake is the voice of our generation. If he plays his cards right, I truly think he can be the voice of the next, too. #Graham2028 (jk) (not really).
Butter: Essential to January Survival
I don’t know why people think resolutions are going to stick in January - I only make it through by surrounding myself with routine and comfort. And no, before you ask, I have not, nor am I likely to ever read about hygge; this is all based on animal instinct (i.e. hibernation).
I’m afraid I’ve become a bit of a butter snob too. I’ll make do with pretty much any butter for baking, but for frosting and anything involving browned butter I insist on unsalted butter. And for popcorn there’s no contest: salted cultured butter (European style) is the clear winner. For eating fresh, I’ve fallen for Riviera Petit Pot butter (a salted cultured butter) from Quebec - not exclusively, but as a treat. The dessert of butter.
For those of you who haven’t spent some time tasting butters, might I suggest January is an excellent month to pick up a few varieties and conduct a test. No need to eat it plain (although I’ve done it), but choose a good quality bread that you’re familiar with to minimize distractions, and layer the butter on thick. I prefer mine slightly cool, so when you bite through you get the pleasing ganache-like texture of high fat content, but to each their own.
To prime your palate try listening to this episode of The Current with author Elaine Khosrova on the history of butter, or watch this episode of Mind of a Chef, where Magnus Nilsson visits a tiny Swedish mountain hut to make beautiful butter (this episode pulled me out of my post-US election despondency). I can also recommend this short video on the bread and butter of a restaurant in New Jersey (it really is good butter, I tried it), and this article on one of the best butter makers in England, who incidentally was inspired by Magnus Nilsson’s butter… Oh man, this guy even has a butter-filled instagram!! BE STILL MY HEART.
Jonathan Franzen on Alice Munro
Jonathan Franzen’s classic review of Alice Munro’s Runaway, from 2004, is itself an exceptional read. His impassioned defense of short fiction, and his overflowing admiration of ‘Munrovian’ storytelling, is sure to revive your faith in literature:
Reading Munro puts me in that state of quiet reflection in which I think about my own life: about the decisions I've made, the things I've done and haven't done, the kind of person I am, the prospect of death. She is one of the handful of writers, some living, most dead, whom I have in mind when I say that fiction is my religion. For as long as I'm immersed in a Munro story, I am according to an entirely make-believe character the kind of solemn respect and quiet rooting interest that I accord myself in my better moments as a human being.
What 'Canadian Values' Mean to Muslim-Canadians
We conceived The Harper Decade as a platform to address issues overlooked by mainstream Canadian media, but important to understanding how Canada had changed under the Harper government. One of the most important issues we wanted to address was Islamophobia. Islamophobia grew significantly under Stephen Harper through both state policies and rhetoric that targeted Muslims, often hidden under the guise of addressing gender equality, citizenship, or national security issues. In the lead up to the 2015 election, progressive critiques of Harper seemed to avoid explicitly labeling his government Islamophobic. We wanted to challenge that narrative, and did so with Faisal Bhabha's Does Stephen Harper Care About Muslims?
The piece seemed to foreshadow the desperation of the Harper campaign as it neared election day, with the Conservative party dropping all pretenses or subtleties over who it was targeting with its restrictive refugee sponsorship policies, politically charged hotlines, or prescribed attire for citizenship oaths. The Conservatives did everything they could to make Muslims in Canada feel that they did not belong in this country.
Muslim-Canadians responded at the polls, teaching the Conservatives the consequences of their racist policies by turning out to vote in large numbers. In the riding I organized in, the Muslim-Canadian vote proved to be decisive. The community turned out in record numbers through a grassroots campaign months in the making to defeat one the most vocal Islamophobic Ministers in cabinet. After the election, many of us behind the campaign thought that this was the last time we would see conservative politicians in this country openly campaign on restricting the rights and place of Muslims in Canada.
Kellie Leitch proved us wrong. Islamophobia appears to run deep in this country.
However, the responses of Muslim-Canadians to Leitch's 'Canadian Values' bullshit have reaffirmed my faith in this country, and that proponents of diversity, tolerance, and inclusiveness will prevail in the end. This includes a fantastic feature by Ishmael N. Daro, which shares the perspectives of 11 Muslim-Canadians on the meaning of Canadian values in the context of the 'Canadian Values' debate. If anything, I hope it demonstrates to Leitch and others that Muslim-Canadians will not sit idly by while their place in this country is undermined.
On May 1st 2016, a wildfire started just southwest of Fort McMurray, a city where I’d spent most of my teens growing up. While wildfires aren’t totally uncommon in the region, the dry and above average conditions at the time quickly made the situation unmanageable. By that evening, several neighborhoods were being evacuated and by May 3rd the entire city of more than 80,000 people was being evacuated.
I remember the evening of the evacuation, watching the images on the CBC’s news reports. Beacon Hill was one of the hardest hit areas and some of the footage that came out of there made it look just biblical- real fire and brimstone sort of stuff. The next day I actually heard rumours that the high school I attended burnt down (it didn’t) but because the city was empty, no one could really confirm anything. Everyone feared the worst.
Now, like a lot people who grew up in Fort McMurray, I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with the place. Growing up there, I knew it wasn’t the last stop for me but my life has become inexorably tied to the place and it’s shaped my life in more ways that I could have ever anticipated.
It’s been a number of years since I’ve been back to Fort McMurray and if I never go back then that will be my choice, but I knew the city would always be there. The idea that maybe there might not be anything to go back to one day wasn’t something that I’d ever prepared myself for.
Oddly enough, after the fire threat had passed and before the evacuation order had been lifted, there were two unrelated explosions one day apart which destroyed several houses and damaged a number of others in the area. Of the three places that I called home while living up there, I lived a stones throw from both of those explosions.
Another Reason to Ditch Facebook
Facebook has 98 data points on each of its nearly 2 billion users. Google Maps, Uber, Snapchat, your email — these applications track your location, monitor your activity, and plug all of this information into various algorithms in order to build a digital profile of you. These profiles are then sold to companies that can use the data for a variety of things: targeted advertising, market research, criminal investigations….
Unsurprisingly, these profiles are typically inaccurate (click here to get a glimpse at your own*). And yet these inaccuracies have not stopped the ongoing collection and use of this mostly meaningless data and confused simulacra. Why? Well, mostly because there’s a lot of money to be made from it. As Sue Halpern points out in an excellent overview of this issue, Facebook has made a killing selling its data to advertisers: “the company made $2.3 billion in the third quarter of 2016 alone, up from about $900 million in the same three months last year.”
Halpern also demonstrates how, in addition to being inaccurate, this type of data is dangerously reductive, often diminishing an individual’s profile into a series of assumptions or stereotypes based on their presumed race or ethnicity, to the neighborhood they live in, or the amount of money they make. And, again predictably, this has led to all sorts of predatory advertising and insidious commercial activities, from selling bad credit to low-income individuals to linking typically black names to ads for criminal background checks. Halpern writes:
“Many of us have been concerned about digital overreach by our governments, especially after the Snowden revelations. But the consumerist impulse that feeds the promiscuous divulgence of personal information similarly threatens our rights as individuals and our collective welfare. Indeed, it may be more threatening, as we mindlessly trade ninety-eight degrees of freedom for a bunch of stuff we have been mesmerized into thinking costs us nothing.”
Remember the good old days (maybe 2008?), when we thought social media was going to save the world?
*For example, Facebook thinks that I am "interested in", among many other things, beauty (I guess), the neighborhood of Ekali, near Athens (never heard of it), "homo sapiens" (not really), "buffet" (correct), and "Close Friends of People with a Birthday in 7-30 days" (??).
Links from the Week's Thread
An epic new track from the Black Madonna: “He Is the Voice I Hear”.
When Desire Goes Dark : “[A]t some point in the last year my urgency to sustain or possess something (an emotional state, a relationship, a milestone of financial success) evaporated, and my me-ness along with it. “
For the Moonlight fans: Geography as identity
Speaking of Solange, she is featured on the latest episode of the podcast Song Exploder, dissecting her hit single "Cranes in the Sky".