Monday, 31 August 2009

"should have stayed on the farm"

The artwork for rap artist Ghostface's forthcoming album, The Wizard of Poetry, takes as its inspiration L. Frank Baum's 1900 children's fable, The Wizard of Oz, in which a young American girl, displaced from her rural home, must travel to the Emerald City to obtain assistance from a kind-hearted wizard. The girl acquires a small band of companions, whom she helps to overcome various personal failings while traveling to the city. However, at journey's end, Dorothy comes to understand the simplicity and goodness of the moral values associated with her agrarian upbringing, and wishes only for a return to the homestead.

The use of the Wizard of Oz has its antecedents in popular culture. Elton John, whose association with hip hop stems from an unlikely collaboration with public homophobe Eminem at the 2001 Grammy Awards show, and from 'Ghetto Gospel', a 2004 duet with the late 2pac Shakur, which reached the number one spot in the UK, Ireland and Australia, used Oz's central motif - the Yellow Brick Road along which Dorothy journeys - as a framing device for an album about the voyage from innocence to experience [Ed's update: the title track of which is sampled on the final track of Raekwon's Only Built For Cuban Linx II, an album which, suspiciously, hit the internets just hours after this GMS investigative post]. The album's mawkish lead single, 'Candle In The Wind', was revised in 1997 as a tribute to Diana, a 'fairytale princess' whose ability to articulate a 'down-to-earth' morality endeared her to the public as much as it provoked friction with the British royal family.

'Candle In The Wind' was released in the same year as Puff Daddy's 'I'll Be Missing You', a similarly sentimental tribute to a recently deceased celebrity, which also appropriated a middlebrow hit single by a wealthy Englishman - in this case Sting, with his post-punk band the Police - as a strategy to lend the tribute a sense of gravitas and permanence. Just as 'I'll Be Missing You' featured R'n'B singer Faith Evans, one-time paramour of the dead subject, as a counterpoint to the rapping of Sean 'Puffy' Combs, so The Wizard Of Poetry promises a suite of 'RnB collabos', finding their artistic drive in the interplay between female singers and Ghostface - who, like Elton John and 2Pac, used modern technology to collaborate with his dead contemporary and sometime rival, the Notorious BIG, on the 2006 track 'Three Bricks'.

The Wizard of Oz has been descirbed as 'the first American fairy tale', and while it draws on several European folk traditions, and on the work of Northern European compilers such as the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen, its themes speak directly to first and second generation immigrants, adjusting to the mixture of hardship and promise provided by the plains of the midwest. Nevertheless, the tale lends itself to reconfiguration, as is underscored by the 1978 musical adaptation The Wiz, which presented Oz as a tale relevant to a black, urban audience.

Employing the idiom of the blaxploitation movies which are a recurrent theme in Ghostface's studio albums, the Wiz starred another recent celebrity casualty, Michael Jackson, whose music Ghostface has sampled on several occasions. Jackson claimed an affinity with Diana, and P. Diddy, who performed his tribute to the Notorious BIG at the 1997 'Concert for Diana', also contributed a verse to 'Better on the Other Side', a hastily-assembled tribute to Jackson, helmed by the Game, sometime labelmate of Ghostface's frequent collaborator, Chef Raekwon.
Jackson's co-star in the Wiz, Nipsey Russell, has also been the recipient of a hip hop tribute in the form of Nipsey Hussle, an upcoming West Coast rapper who has also worked with the Game. Russell, a comedian and regular on Hollywood Squares, was known as 'the Poet Laureate of TV'.

Unlike his fellow member of the Wu-Tang Clan, Method Man, Ghostface is not known for his TV work, but his album title makes his concern with poetic form clear. Likewise, the centrality of the
Emerald city in the artwork signals associations with Irish culture, which esteems poets and the poetic tradition. Dexys Midnight Runners, a second-generation Irish group who named their string section 'The Emerald Express' on their Celtic-themed sophomore album, Too-Rye-Aye, share with Ghostface a reverence for classic soul, forthright seduction techniques, amphetamines and dungarees.

More firmly within the Irish tradition, poetry is often deployed as a response to the socially corrosive effects of violence, and as a way to reformulate identities fragmented by colonisation, mass emigration, and the diaspora. Just as Yeats spoke of 'a terrible beauty', so rap has often been upheld as a cultural space in which those denied social or economic power can make sense of their experiences, and can build a sense of pride, purpose, and a community not of letters, but of words - a 'slang democracy', in the words of Raekwon. Hence the 'street' becomes the Yellow Brick Road, New York 'the Emerald City', as seen across the river from the impoverished housing projects of Ghostface's native Staten Island, with Central Park foregrounded on the album cover, a leisure-space of sexual opportunity where the trappings of status and class are in one moment leveled on the picnic rug.

This opulent and optimistic visual language is out of step with Ghostface's conventional artistic choices. Unusually for a rapper, two of his solo albums locate him in a live music environment, while four picture engaged in professional work: for his debut, Ironman, he is employed in a colourful shoe factory; his third album, Bulletproof Wallets, sees him in the role of a chef, while two later albums, Fishscale and More Fish, pivture him as a fishmonger, once a profitable and respectable working class profession in the port city of New York. Ironically, of course, Irish immigrants formed the backbone of the incipient New York Police Department - a recurrent bugbear of Ghostface's street-level narratives. Their descendants are often themselves policemen, not just in New York, but in the immigrant towns of the Eastern seabord and the northern United States - as was recently emphasised by the Wire, a series which drew parallels between white and black working class communities in urban America, and which featuring Method Man as a mid-level Baltimore criminal.

HBO, the channel which commissioned the Wire, also played host to a long-running prison drama entitled Oz, which feaured a high-security prison known to the inmates as the Emerald City. Oz offered journeys of personal discovery and occasional redemption for its characters, but generally without the female companionship that Ghostace's vision suggests. Nevertheless, it has found appreciation in the hip hop community: fellow New York rhymer and former Def Jam labelmate NORE identified himself as "Adebisi", a powerful black rapist from the series, in his 2002 single 'Nuthin'.

Ghostface's most recent album, the Big Doe Rehab, signalled a move towards more aspirational and less masculine concerns, featuring Ghostface attended by a buxom nurse and surrounded by medicine and piles of money. Nevertheless, The Wizard of Poetry marks a new departure in being the first Ghostface solo album not to feature the visage of the once-masked rapper. A similar facelessness was a tactic of the prog rock band Pink Floyd, whose Dark Side of the Moon - released just months before Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - is popularly rumoured to have been composed as a soundtrack to the Wizard of Oz. Certainly, the album's cover, which illustrates a monochrome light beam broken into a rainbow by a prism, echoes the film's most popular song, 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow', while also paying tribute to MGM's innovative use of technicolour.

An appreciation of colour distinguishes Ghostface from many rappers, particularly of the 90s generation. In a skit on Raekwon's debut album, Only Built For Cuban Linx, Ghostface details his technique for dying shoes, his favourite combination being "blue and cream". A similar do-it-yourself aesthetic informed the album covers designed by Pen-n-Pixel studios, which combined colours, visual effects and luxury items beyond the budgets of regional rap performers with computer trickery, and towards which the fantasia scenery of The Wizard of Poetry knowingly nods.

Just as Pen-n-Pixel juxtaposed poor, disenfranhised black artists with diamonds, bejewelled goblets, neo-Georgian mansions, luxury motor vehicles and exploding helicopters, so the Wizard of Poetry emerges at a time of economic strife, which has affected not only the poorer neighbourhoods that Ghostface often 'represents' in his raps, but also the more affluent sections of his audience - consumers on whom popular musicians depend, and who play as much a key role in shaping the contemporary cultural landscape and the artists themselves.

The choice of the Wizard is apposite, casting as it does a link not only to the agricultural depressions of the 1880s and 1890s - the first to affect the global economy - but also the Great Depression of the 1930s, from which MGM's colourful musical version offered both a respite, and a note of hope that personal courage and traditional morality would overcome the 'whirlwind' of economic collapse.

Many critics have seen in The Wizard of Oz a political allegory - a fear that economic strife may lead to political injustice and misrule. It has been suggested the 'Oz' itself is a reference to the ounce, signalling a support for the charismatic Populist leader William Jennings Bryan, who advocated bi-metallism as a response to the economic crisis, inflating the currency and thereby relieving small farmers encumbranced by debt and unable to borrow on future earnings. Bryan's famed 'Cross of Gold' speech was dense in its biblical imagery, as is much of the most successful American rhetoric, black rights leader Martin Luther King's speeches being a case in point.

Rap, too, draws on biblical and religious themes to highlight personal and social struggles. Although Ghostface has never recorded a religious song as direct as Kanye West's 'Jesus Walks' or as recondite as the works of Wu-affiliate Killah Priest, Ghostface has often deployed the language and lore of the 5% Nation of Islam in support of his musical perspectives. Perhaps more directly, Ghostface links the 'ounce' of Oz, and the 'brick' of the Yellow Brick Road (he revisves his own 'Three Bricks' theme with a guest appearance on Raekwon's Only Built For Cuban Linx II, entitled 'Ten Bricks'), to the hard-nosed rationalism of the drug trade where, indeed, "a kilo weighs a thousand grams".

Like Jennings Bryan, and indeed like many modern populist opponents of the complex world of high finance, Ghostface harbours a suspicion of the parried and fluid realities of stock dealing, which is implicit in his artwork: the journey provides the heft of the story, but it is the return to a fixed neighbourhood, where values are static and frequently reinforced, that provides the logic of the pilgrimage.


cunit said...

wow. Did that all come out in one go?

Ass Hat said...

such is the suggestive force of the wizard of poetry.

Christopher said...

"a powerful black rapist from the series"

He also wore fetching hats.

Ass Hat said...

very true. i identified with his moving quest to find courage.

Anonymous said...

Ours is an envionment where evil is perceived to be rewarded while good is punished. As with everything the Gods have a reason for creating this perception::::
People who fall on the good side of the good/evil scale have more favor, and when they do something wrong the Gods punish them BECAUSE THEY WANT THEM TO LEARN. The Gods want them to receive this feedback in hope they make corrections and begin to behave appropriately. The Gods DON'T like evil and refuse to grant this feedback.
EVERYBODY pays for what they do wrong, only evil people must wait until their next life before they will experience the wrath of the Gods, manifested in their reincarnation as a lower form of life into environments with increased/enhanced temptations.
Sadly, this allows the Gods to position this perception of evil rewarded as temptation, one which they use as an EXTREMELY effective corruptor.

Both Africa and the Medittereanean are regions which have sexual issues. This is a sign of morbid disfavor once you understand that females are the God's favored gender. Muhammad's (Mohammed's) polygamy halfway through his life as a prophet was preditory. Now a huge percentage of Muslims believes in male superiority and that the abuse of women is God's will. Female genital mutilation is still practiced in Africa. Black misogyny is the most eggregious example in the recent past.
Black member size is temptation to a predisposed population.
The patriarchal cancer spread throughout Europe because of Christianity, of which the majority of policy makers were Italian men. Expect the largest landowner in Europe and the continent's original superpower also played a major role in African slavery.

Militancy in Africa is consistant with the Iraqi example, as was slavery and the KKK here in America:::Fear enforces proper behavior. Without it we see what happens as a result of gross/morbid disfavor:::::AIDS, crack babies, dead young men in gangland retaliation killings. This is the purpose behind many black's historical tendancy towards resistance.
The same principle was true in Europe and throughout the world for centuries:::People whom lived under iron fists were conditioned to think the right way. As a result they experienced higher numbers of children ascend into heaven because they were taught to think and behave appropriately, which they passed on to their children. Our preditory envionment of "freedom" was the primary purpose the Gods had when implimenting this strategy that is the United States, one which they used to spred the cancer of democracy and westernization throughout the world. And the Gods use this tool that is America to prey on the disfavored both at home and abroad:::Much like the ghetto, America in general experiences a heightened level of temptation due to the people's disfavor.

Even the Old Testiment is not to be taken literally, but the Gods do offer clues throughout to help the disfavored:::The apple is a tool of temptation used to corrupt Adam and Eve and cast them out of the Garden of Eden.
There is another lesson to be learned from this passage, and it is quite similar to the vailing issue and the discourse over women's attire which ultimately died in the 70s:::Women are responsible for and control the fate of mankind.

Think about what I say. Consider what I teach. Society is going to become disturbingly ugly as we approach the Apocalypse due to spiralling, runaway disfavor.
I do not know when this will occurr, but it is the God's way to grant some time before they end on Planet Earth.
Make the decision to always be good and never look back. Until you do this technology will employ tactics to test your resolve:::Ridicule, beligerance, doubt and refusal to abandon what people perceive to be their "investment".
Pray daily. Think appropriately. Too many are confident, unaware of the God's awesome powers or their status as antients. Others may fall prey to their positioning.
Be humbled, God-fearing and beware of the God's temptations, for everyone is tested to evaluate their worthiness.
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