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Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Griff says; We're all going to the Zu!

Scottish hip-hop social-commentators, and Streetlamp favourites, Stanley Odd (see 'here' and 'here') have been in touch recently to let us know that the release of their second EP this year, The Day I Went Deaf, is set for the 24th of October on Circular Records. As you can imagine, The Streetlamp has been eagerly anticipating this, so keep checking in regularly for our review, which will follow soon. In the meantime, The Streetlamp is taking another of our occasional forays into the world of hip-hop, this time to bring you something rather special from the other side of the Atlantic.

AS220 is a 25-year old non-profit organization located in Providence, Rhode Island, US. It functions as an epicentre for the arts in the city, offering artists a variety of opportunities including affordable live/work space, galleries, a performance space, a 'green' print shop, and community dark rooms.

In 1998, AS220 wanted to incorporate more young people into its community. Reaching out the to Rhode Island Training School (RITS), the state’s juvenile detention facility, AS220 began to provide arts programming to incarcerated young men and women. Called AS220 Youth, and serving young people ages 14-21, with a special focus on those in the care and custody of the State, their goal was to engage youth in creative processes that would lead to positive social, educational and vocational outcomes.

By 2000, the energy and momentum around AS220’s arts education program at the RITS had grown to such an extent that a physical space apart from the RITS was needed. A large industrial space was rented on Providence’s Southside, and the Broad Street Studio was born. After being released from the Training School, youngsters came to the Studio to continue the creative work and personal relationships that started inside. Additional art and music classes were introduced at the new site, and staff and youth joined forces to build a recording studio. Alliances were formed with juvenile probation, group homes, and foster care agencies with the intention of staying connected with the young people after their release from the RITS, and as they returned to the community. The Broad Street Studio was created because of the belief in the power of art and the art process to have a positive impact in the life of these young people. So has it worked? Well, I'm not in a position to let you know how any of the individuals involved in the programme faired, unfortunately. But what I can tell you is that in the free downloadable album 'Enter the Zu' by ZuKrewe, released on the Free Music Archive last month, they have produced a blistering work full of passion, vigour, insight and hope that absolutely enthralls from the first listen and fills you full of optimism for the future of those involved.

The self-deprecating central conceit of 'Enter the Zu', as established by the opening track, also titled 'Enter the Zu', is that the performers are exotic creatures caged for our convenience and amusement. However, as the ring-master extols the wonders to be found in his menagerie, the animals escape and begin to face their captors and the audience on their own terms. And this they proceed to do emphatically, and with a surprising and pleasing diversity of styles, throughout the remarkable 14 tracks that follow.

So, which songs would I personally recommend? Well, all of them, really. There truly isn't a poor song on this collection. However, I will single out a few for special mention as they touch on subjects close to The Streetlamp's liberal heart;

The fierce polemic of 'Double Standards' just has to be heard. It is delivered a capella and spat out with a wise and restrained fury. In this song/poem the artist draws our attention to the moral double standard employed by politicians on both sides of the Atlantic; always ready with a trite soundbite to condemn street violence but conveniently forgetting their own state-sponsored violence. This theme is made even more explicit in another unaccompanied rap, 'Peep The Scene', in which we are rightly reminded that;
"a gang is the same thing as a government gang"

Too true! Here in the UK, particularly in the wake of our recent riots, we've all become familiar with the elite, rich, Oxbridge-educated political classes holding forth about a 'feral underclass'. The narrative is always the same, young people are demonised and the poor and marginalised are blamed for society's ills and accused of a culture of 'mindless violence'. These are the same politicians who conveniently forget that violence is their own cleverly-disguised stock-in-trade; their officialy-sanctioned forces of control, the police and the armed forces, are used to supress dissent at home and to acquire possessions abroad. The politicians of countries like the UK and the US are soaked in the blood of innocents and will blithely sanction shelling non-combatants abroad in their lust for oil. As these song reminds us, despite their hypocritical and glib condemnation, they are the masters of violence. A variation on this theme, of money, power and respect and how they are granted or denied by accident of birth , continues with the blistering 'Victim on A Journey', which takes a welcome pop at big business.

'A Woman's Worth', another short unaccompanied poem/rap is every bit as powerful and compelling. With its theme of the contradictory standards set for women in society, particularly in the sphere of sexual mores, it delivers a powerful blow to the lazy and dangerous imposition of gender inequality.

The young men involved deliver some wonderfully perceptive, courageous and emotionally-open stuff too. The best of these is 'How To Be A Man', in which a youth delivers a message of guidance to his unborn son, in case he isn't around to deliver it in person; and given the rates of incarceration and homicides for young black men in the US this isn't an unlikely scenario. It takes real bravery for a young man to be so candid and expressive and the song ripples with emotional power.

'Fathers' Struggle Poem' is another absolute corker. Focussing on the perpetual vicious circle of absent fatherhood, it is both sad and yet hopeful, in that recognition of this cycle can ultimately lead to the breaking of it.

Don't think for a minute that with all these 'message songs' filled with incisive social commentary, or because of the laudable social consciences on display that this is a 'worthy' or 'doom and gloom' affair. Absoulutely not! These songs are rippling with muscular, youthful energy and enthusiasm. 'So Good', for instance, is an energetic bounce along that I guarantee will have you punching the air and singing along. 'Treat Her Right' is similarly catchy and upbeat.

So, go ahead and download this free, righteous and exhilirating album and then tell all your friends about it. AS220, with its faith in those who are too often ignored, feared or disdained deserves our support, and Enter the Zu is a message that demands to be shouted from the rooftops!


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