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Iconoclasm

Iconoclasm

The Breaking and Making of Images
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Fifteen Paths

Fifteen Paths

How to Tune Out Noise, Turn On Imagination and Find Wisdom
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Excerpt

Chapter 9: Be Curious

 

If you are curious, you are likely to find your way to the music and art of Angelo Moore and Fishbone. Curiosity led me to discover Fishbone as a teenager. All the bands that I admired were at one point or another photographed wearing T-shirts with Fishbone’s… sorry, there’s no other way to describe it, fishbone logo. And when I finally got to see them live for the first time, it changed my life. Walking into the venue mid-show, I have a snapshot of what I saw onstage that is as vivid today as it was twenty-five years ago. It was November 14, 1991, in my final year of high school, and I could not convince any friends to go see the double bill of Fishbone and Primus at the legendary Concert Hall. The combination of the hillbilly strangeness that was Primus and black punks Fishbone was an impossible sell to my mildly adventurous social circle of fellow Hebrew school nerds.

Instead, we reached a compromise and went to see Metallica, who were in town performing that same night at Maple Leaf Gardens. Metallica still had some danger associated with them, although it was the beginning of their re-creation as a mainstream rock act. But, the gods of punk intervened on my behalf that evening. In the middle of Metallica’s somewhat uninspiring set, Angelo is led in by the promoter to a seat on the floor right next to us. Although not recognized as the celebrity he should be, Angelo stood out. As I remember it, he was the only person of colour that I could see in the venue. With his bleached dreadlocked Mohawk, over-sized suspenders, wide-eyed gaze of curiosity and seemingly endless smile, he got noticed.

For me, it was an irrefutable sign that we needed to see Fishbone that night. For my friends, they were very curious about this black dude who slipped into the show, danced up an enthusiastic storm amidst the head banging, and then quickly disappeared. My begrudging group of peers were curious enough to be convinced that it may be worthwhile to head over to the Fishbone show, once the final cheesy pyro display from the Metallica stage had burned out.

The spectacle they saw after a short walk a few blocks down the road was unforgettable. What Metallica could not achieve on their gigantic stage with endless explosions and blinding lighting, Fishbone attained by playing music and being themselves. Seven shirtless black men, cramped on a platform designed for four piece bands, drenched in sweat, but keeping a wordless consensus sustained between all of them and the equally sweaty audience. What unfolded moment to moment might lead an outside observer to fear that the entire efforts were going to be overtaken by the chaos. But that fear would only manifest in someone not part of the wordless consensus. The band was so remarkably in sync… A trombone goes flying through the air - Chris Dowd catches it as he briefly turns away from his keyboard to demonstrate his expertise in yet another instrument. Then it is not an object, but a person, that takes flight as Angelo leaps offstage, mike still in hand, screaming “SWIM!”, as the crowd creates a wave of hands for him to surf on. Norwood Fisher blissfully takes in the scene while holding down the bass line, keeping the rhythm amidst the chaos…

Our curiosity was rewarded that night. A social conversation rooted in wisdom is characterized by participants who are always curious. They are curious about each other, curious about the potential to be more inclusive, curious about how to bring more unique individuals and novel ideas into their shared exchange. If you want to pursue the heart of wisdom, you need to be curious. Even if you have never listened to punk, or jazz or rap; even if you don’t read comic books or like clowns or consider yourself spiritually inclined. Be curious as to why these artists were chosen, and how the argumentative expressions that are captured here are reflected (or not!) in their imaginative output.

If there is one major trend shared by both the left and the right in the contemporary West it is the devaluation of curiosity as virtuous. Whether it is shouts of “fake news” or “resisting” triggering speech, more and more folks are choosing to celebrate their confirmation bias instead of overcoming it. We willfully choose to station ourselves in echo chambers, exposing ourselves exclusively to ideas that reinforce what we already believe. To be curious means to willfully take the risk that you may encounter a distressing idea. But this type of risk can be a prelude to innovation, as failure and error no longer become dirty words. It’s a type of rule-breaking that leads to wisdom. Throughout this book, we have been working with Rorty’s definition of wisdom as the ability to keep a conversation going. Psychologists define wisdom[1] as a broad category covering the acquisition and use of knowledge. Specific traits of wisdom include curiosity and the related characteristics of creativity and open-mindedness. Think about those relationships – curiosity and creativity go hand in hand; those who are closed-minded will never be wise.

Listening with curiosity suggests a discontent with the status quo. The curious harbor a deep-rooted belief that things can be better. In addition to being masters of their craft, each of the artists encountered in this work are known for always being curious. They exemplify an uncanny ability to retain a childlike trait of wonder, which in turn allows them to tap deep into the realm of imagination.

Many in our society have forgotten what conversation means. They hide behind screens, launching screeds against those who somehow manage to infiltrate their echo chambers. Listening with curiosity is the antidote to the present-day malaise of a culture dominated by social media which has been overtaken by cynical parties interested in manipulating our baser instincts to serve their non-altruistic ends. One positive outcome of this is that it allows the curious to see how expansive some echo chambers are. For example, when in March of 2018 D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. blamed the Jews for bad weather, it offered an important window. As Yair Rosenberg observed[2]:

 

The scandal here is not just that an elected Democrat, the youngest on the D.C. Council, believed that a family that has been the target of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories for centuries is controlling the weather. It’s that he exists in an information bubble where this sort of thing is apparently both common and not considered outrageous or reprehensible. And the existence and influence of that bubble is far more disturbing than any single anti-Semitic eruption… when public figures feel free to share such content unselfconsciously on their feeds, it is the sign of a broken culture. It means that within their ideological universe, they do not expect to experience any opprobrium.

 

If we want to steer our social conversation in the direction of wisdom, we need to harness the power that emerges from being curious, as opposed to the power that comes with contempt for people whose arguments do not immediately coalesce with our worldviews. And we need to challenge ourselves and those with whom we agree with to step out of our own bubbles and be curious about the lack of wisdom that may exist in our safe spaces.

Despite the racism he had encountered throughout his life, and despite being an outcast in the world of hip hop, Del ended the conversation captured in the last chapter with some positive guidance: embrace laughter and make an effort to be kind. It is a message of hope that will be reiterated ten-fold in our next conversation.

Perhaps no artist has felt the bias of the music industry as severely as Angelo Moore and Fishbone. And yet despite the challenges, no artist retains the infectious curiosity of Angelo. While bands who were influenced by Fishbone both personally and musically, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or No Doubt, went on to sell millions of records and headline stadiums, Fishbone continue the hard work of constant touring in small clubs and ongoing financial difficulties.

The struggles of this band have been well documented, perhaps most notably in a critically acclaimed 2011 documentary. Many of the biggest names in alternative rock will explicitly state that Fishbone should have the place of success and respect that they have been fortunate enough to occupy instead. And while almost everything that could go wrong for a band, along with some things you would never imagine like losing a founding member to a Christian cult, did go wrong for this band, it cannot be denied that at least part of their problem was the fact that they were black folks playing what was (and maybe still is) regarded by audiences and industry gatekeepers as white music.

Chaos continues to engulf Angelo. Finding a serene moment with him was mission impossible. When we were first scheduled to talk, none of his handlers could find him. Then, when we later connect, it is in the middle of a hunt through New York City to find a shop that can quickly repair his computer before show time. The third time I catch him he’s getting off a tour bus in Vermont, shocked to discover that his band had been booked for an outdoor mountaintop reggae festival… in March… in the snow. Native Californians do not have a great handle on the weather-related realities of the Northeast. Needless to say, I didn’t have a lot of time with Angelo, but I could not write this book without talking to him. He has been inspiring my curiosity for three decades, and continues to be the living embodiment of the ever-curious artist. Angelo is a legendary figure for me and thousands of others, leading an African American punk band in a genre dominated by whites, offering insight into overcoming the challenges of racism even in outsider communities with a philosophy of “Optimistic? Yes!” His curiosity knows no bounds and should inspire us all.

Angelo: I’ve spent my entire life in the dissonant zone. It’s all about liking what I hear. And it’s not coming from pop radio. There’s so much – pop radio has a really big influence on a lot of people’s music. Sometimes it’s good, you know. Me personally, I’ve always gone for the more eclectic sounds in music. That kind of music is like an addition of different sounds that you hear, all being put together in order to make one new unique sound. I remember what I did is that I threw my tennis shoe in the washing machine. And I threw in a monkey wrench, and then a screwdriver, and a couple of paper clips – and I recorded it.

I was probably fifteen. I recorded it, but I threw one in at a time. It turned into just beats after a while. Like maybe the record scratching, or the record skip, and with that record skip, it created a beat from the record skip, too. And of course, growing up listening to James Brown and Funkadelic and a lot of jazz – all that kind of stuff. And then after a while, the ska and the reggae came into the picture. That was probably around high school. When I was younger I was more into the James Brown and all that, the jazz and Motown and stuff. I got my fill of what was considered pop music. But I’ve always leaned more towards the more challenging genres of music.

It’s also from the tour days. On the tour bus, it’s like the magic sounds. But then when you step off the tour bus, you automatically hear all the sounds of the city. The horns, the car horns, the construction worker sounds, that’s music right there.

Angelo describes spending his entire life in “the dissonance zone”, listening to the world in a manner that was somewhat different than the norm. From an early age, he was curious about sound. The artistic impulse to experiment got the better of him. As a parent, I can only imagine how frustrating it might be to come home and find your teenaged son destroying your appliances with shoes and tools. The world should thank Angelo’s mom for having the patience to nurture and support her son’s curiosity, instead of shutting it down.

To Angelo, the rhythmic thud of shoes in a washing machine was music. The metal clang of a screwdriver in the machine was music. Sounds of a city overrun by traffic congestion was music. Angelo hears all sounds as potentially musical, and wants to share his inspiration with us. Angelo experiences Heschel’s shattering experience, the rousing of our souls when the critical faculties of our mind are confused, in every sonic facet of life. We need to listen to him. And that can be tough, even for those closest to him, as his love of dissonant sounds takes him down some socially difficult paths:

Angelo: With the theremin, we were with this badass band in Atlanta. And I was downstairs, walking around in the hallways in the studio. We were recording there, and I walked past this… thing. And when I walked past it, it went ‘woo’. And then I backed up and it did the ‘woo’ thing again when I got close to it. And that’s how I discovered the theremin, because it was left on, and I walked in the field of the theremin’s pitch. And from there on out, I was just hooked on that thing. Everyone in the band hated that I liked the theremin. They thought it got in the way. It was a nuisance. It was “ear garbage”. Ear garbage is what they called it!

Even for a band as eclectic as ours, the theremin was even more dissonant. Crazy dissonant sunrise shit, man. I love it. I pride myself on playing it in tune. 95% of the time, I’m playing the theremin in tune, man. There are only a few people on the planet who can play it in tune. A lot of other people are just doing that ‘woo woo woo’ shit and making noise.

In keeping with the theme of the last chapter, I had to laugh as Angelo told this story, and he laughed along with me. I can picture him making his bandmates crazy with the noise of the theremin. The same wildly curious child that made his Mom crazy with banging her washing machine is alive and well and making his seemingly chilled Fishbone colleagues lose their shit with the “ear garbage” he was bringing to their practice.

If you are not familiar with this notorious instrument, the theremin is named after the Russian inventor who created it as part of government-sponsored research into proximity sensors. It’s the only instrument that I can think of which is played without being touched. There is absolutely no physical contact between the musician playing a theremin and the hardware of the instrument itself. Instead, the artist will stand in front of the theremin and moves their hands around in the air between the instrument’s two metal antennas. The theremin is played by manipulating the electromagnetic fields that are around these two antennas. How far the shaking hands are from one antenna determines the pitch of the ensuing sounds, while the distance of the hand-waving from the other antenna controls the volume. Higher notes are played by moving the hand closer to the pitch antenna. Louder notes are played by moving the hand away from the volume antenna. Accomplished thereminist Rob Schwimmer[3] describes playing it like “finger painting in space" or “having sex with ghosts.”

I’m laughing even as I sit and transcribe my conversation with Angelo. I can see Angelo excited by the prospect of creating sound which is birthed through intimacy with a ghost, and I can also see why his ecstatic joy in discovering new ways to make noise might have exacerbated tensions between Angelo and the rest of the band, accomplished musicians who suffer already for playing “outside of their race”. But, it’s a credit to the evolving unit that is Fishbone that the creative impulse ultimately rules the day:

Angelo: The creativity in the music is the only way out. Even though everyone was dysfunctional, and everyone was still discovering themselves and discovering one another. The music was the way everyone connected to escape. We had the music together. Automatically we had that together. We just didn’t have the business rights. We didn’t know who was off stealing money and all of that other shit. The music kept us going.

When I’m creating a piece I actually get into the piece of whatever it is that I’m making. I don’t really think about – I try my best not to think about what I hear on the television or the radio. Because I know that stuff has been put together by a programmer – somebody else with a musical taste that is probably different than mine. I try not to listen to too much of that. I put out or recreate what’s in my head through my instruments.

Throughout their history, Fishbone have positioned themselves as a part of a number of musical conversations. Some elements, like reggae and funk, are traditionally associated with Black American artistry. Some elements, like punk and metal, are associated with White America. But Fishbone never cared for segregation – not intellectually, artistically or socially. They were artists, first and foremost, following their muse despite the socio-economic pressures to conform.

Angelo: There’s so much to say about it. As an all-black band, playing so many different genres of music, especially rock and roll – it gives us access to a different audience. It’s how Fishbone started. We had a majority of white people at our shows because they were into the rock and roll. Eventually everything started to even out - but our audience. We were like playing music, playing in the genre of music, playing in a scene where, you know, black people don’t play. They just don’t play rock and roll. So that was interesting at first. But it’s been like that the whole time. It’s not really weird to me anymore. When you asked me what do I feel when I’m doing these different places, it’s just regular to me now. It’s what I’ve been doing.

Even today, the music industry is not geared towards black musicians who choose to play rock and roll, despite the obvious roots of the genre in African American artistry. Given that sort of oppression, I asked Angelo what it is that has allowed both him and his Fishbone brothers to keep making interesting art - despite the lack of support from the industry? Unsurprisingly, it was the romantic instinct, our first path to wisdom:

Angelo: First of all, I love doing it. The romance. The only kind of romance that I’ve had in my life that never failed me was the music. And that’s my main bitch right there. It doesn’t argue with you. But the whole business for the financial part of it is another story. It’s a pity you have to attach your music to the business part. All that other shit doesn’t have anything to do with music.

I would hope that our paving the way has made it easier for black folks to play rock music. I want us to have contributed to all of that and a lot more than all of that. The reason why it’s an issue is a fundamental problem with America. We got the stereotypes of black people only playing R&B and hip-hop and reggae and soul, so with black people playing rock and roll, it’s a whole separate, racist stereotype. It shouldn’t be there in the first place. Everyone should be able to play everything. When it comes down to it, there shouldn’t be any of the stereotypes. We helped with breaking that.

I’d like to be able to put my music out to the kids. We’re still trying to get the kids to our shows. I think a lot of them get it. It’s important. They’re the next generation. And we at least want them to have a nice flavour in their heads so they can enjoy it when the hard times come up.

Folks are still coming to see Fishbone. From my perspective, that’s how I see it. Like, they’re still coming to shows, they still get this shit, they still see this band as important enough to get out of their house to come to see the Fishbone show, then right on.

After everything Angelo faced, you would expect him to be angrier. He is not. He always finds the optimistic yes, even amidst the racism, discrimination, band dysfunction and seemingly endless bad luck.

Angelo: You’ve got to be positive, man. Of course you’re going to go through hard times, sad times, whatever. You can’t just have that shit hanging around forever. Or else you won’t think that you’re going anywhere. That’s why you’ve got to have that positivity to pull you out of it. It’s all in your mind, anyway.

Everything is perspective. And optimism is one perspective that I feel. Even with Trump in office, it’s like, ‘How are you going to be optimistic with that’? How are you going to find the diamond in the doo-doo with that one? At least with Trump, everybody hates his ass so much that we have no choice but to band together and come together as one against his ass. And that’s going to bring us all together. So Trump is actually working, in an asshole kind of way. You saw all the women he had together, doing the pussy power march? It was against his ass but it was like one of the biggest “fuck you” in history. Trump is like a big monster coming over here, like a Godzilla.

In talking with Del and Angelo, I thought about how for decades, members of the African-American community had been speaking out about police brutality through mediums ignored by the mainstream. Technology brought indisputable evidence of their truth, giving pause to those who dismiss messages coming from marginalized critics. I fear that the anger arising over race-based oppression may now be matched by anger over class-based oppression. Alternative voices on campus and in the arts have suggested that Western capitalism is irreparably damaged. And those at the helm of capitalism have, by and large dismissed those claims, pointing to allegedly growing interest in business ethics, corporate social responsibility, shared value creation, sustainability and social enterprise, to name but a few areas that show the best capitalism has to offer. But the dissonance between the words of apologists and the deeds of those in power is growing.

The global financial crisis of 2008 came, and those of us advocating for business ethics said “Now things will change”. We were wrong. Eight years later only one banker has gone to jail. We on the research side who still believe Western capitalism can be saved say “It’s complicated, but the financial industry is changing - give it time”. And our marginalized critics get angrier. In 2010, BP were responsible for the Deepwater Oil spill, and we said “That’s it – BP is done”. But their cover-up and rebranding efforts worked, proving that we don’t really take environmental violations seriously. To confirm, in September of 2015 the New York Times[4] called Volkswagen’s decision to install software that would cheat on emissions tests “the great corporate scandals of our age”. We in business ethics said that those who were once drawn to VW will abandon the firm. Less than a year later, VW reports better than expected earnings and the Wall Street Journal[5] exclaims “Volkswagen: From Despair to Euphoria”. Again, we were wrong.

I’m curious about where all of this is going. If capitalism won’t be saved from the inside, then we need artists to show us the way. We need them to be successful. Sure, we need to hear their stories of racist, sexist and classist exploitation. And sure, we need to tie the economic narrative very closely to the political narrative as we try to get our social conversation back on track. But most importantly, we need to learn from them how to be curious, how to stay optimistic and we can follow them on the path to the heart of wisdom.

 

[1] Peterson, C. and Seligman, M.E. 2004. Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford University Press.

[2] Rosenberg, Y. 2018. Conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds are a symptom. The problem is deeper. Washington Post, March 21.

[3] CBS News. 2013. The Theremin: A strange instrument, with a strange history. October 27. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/the-theremin-a-strange-instrument-with-a-strange-history/

[4] Hakim, D., Kessler, A.M., and Ewing, J. 2015. As Volkswagen pushed to be No. 1, ambition fueled a scandal. The New York Times, September 26.

[5] Wilmot, S. 2016. Volkswagen: From Despair to Euphoria. The Wall Street Journal, July 20.

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Reading between the Borderlines

Reading between the Borderlines

Cultural Production and Consumption across the 49th Parallel
edited by Gillian Roberts
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