Wausau City Pages

You Down With GOP?

As amateur hip hop goes, the fidgety high-hat and chant-along, gun-toting chorus that kick off the disc Racism Exposed sound pretty typical. "You think I ain't goin' carry my strap?" demands an MC named Shoanna Z (a.k.a. Shoanna Zealand), before the album's first minute is up. But check the rhyme preceding it: "Democrats want me to stress like that?" Uh, Democrats? Since when did the buttoned-down DFL join sucker MCs, industry snakes, and jealous haters on rap's universal enemies list?No, an album that opens with "Gun Control Is Racist" and follows with "Liberal Democrats Are Racist" is hardly pedestrian in its agenda. In fact, credited producers Don Kennedy and Rocco Gotti are among the unlikeliest impresarios the rap world has ever seen. They're odd in part simply for who they are (Minnesota-based salesmen in their midthirties who describe themselves as "successful white businessmen") in relation to what they've done (written an album's worth of rap lyrics for a hired team of African Americans to make into songs and perform). But it's the pair's Limbaugh-like obsession with the L-word -- other titles include "Liberal Hollywood Hypocrites" and "Liberal Democrat Education Is Wack" -- that relieves the authors of precedent.Kennedy and Gotti aren't aspiring hip-hop stars; they're Republican activists. In the fall of 1998, the pair founded Citizens Opposing Racism and Discrimination (CORAD), a political advocacy group that, in Kennedy's words, "promotes conservative values and philosophies as a means to overcome racism." Released in September by CORAD Records, Racism Exposed was born of the duo's plan to reach an audience not usually steeped in right-wing discourse. "Rocco called me on April 15 last spring," Kennedy recalls. "He says, 'Don, I've got an idea. We can make a CD!' I said, 'Are you crazy?' He said, 'No, I'm not. We can do this.'"To Kennedy, making a rap record was a matter of political expediency, not the realization of a creative urge. "I'm not a big music fan," he admits. "I do like some rap music. I like some of the stuff that Puffy Combs puts out, some of the stuff Biggie Smalls puts out. Master P has a couple good songs that I like, Public Enemy does some good stuff. But I'm more into mainstream rock, I guess."But hip hop "seems to appeal to everybody," he continues. "We wanted our message to reach the broad spectrum of youth, and we felt this would be the best way."So the pair began writing lyrics, trading ideas via fax and e-mail, then getting together to share their work. The process was quicker and easier than Kennedy had anticipated. "We thought we'd just do one or two songs, but then it really took on a life of its own," he recounts. "We had so much information and so much to write about that we decided to put out a full LP." In the end the pair penned lyrics for ten tracks (the album wound up with thirteen; the last three are dramatic readings of snippets from the Gettysburg Address, the Bill of Rights, and sound bites culled from John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and ... Barry Goldwater). Only "Our Black Founding Fathers," with a nearly inspired paean to forgotten black heroes of the Revolutionary War, ventures beyond easy mudslinging. Most of the rest are right-wing shoot-'em-ups, riddling everyone from Patricia Ireland to Leonardo DiCaprio with verbal bullets. The broadest targets take the most direct hits: "Ya know where Clinton was in Rwanda's genocide/Gettin' busy with an intern in the White House on the side." The disc is genuinely entertaining only when it stumbles blindly into the ridiculous, as in "NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN, aka Left Wing Trickery," wherein we learn that "Alan Dershowitz is a liar" and Matt Drudge is "the truth resource."Having rhymed the rhymes, the duo lacked the musical acumen to record them. So Kennedy approached record producer B-Cube (a.k.a. Ben Obi), and later debuted a pair of tracks from the album on Rush It or Flush It, a radio show that invites listeners to phone in their reactions to new songs. When the cut "Secret Hidden Racism" was spun, supportive calls poured in. "It made me want to get up and dance," one caller declared. "That was dope -- I liked the beat," added another. Kennedy's rhymes found a few friendly ears: "You got to rush that," a female caller said. "That girl was talkin' her mind." Only one caller voted to "flush it," opining, "Man, that wasn't cool with me." Until Racism Exposed came along, there's little evidence CORAD was much more than a name Kennedy printed on his letterhead. Kennedy claims the group has "a couple of thousand" registered members, but he can offer no proof. The chat boards on his Web site (www.coradpress.com) are all but silent. He says that last year CORAD organized a food drive and held an anti-racism rally. But Kennedy was unable to find any records to document those events.The CORAD Web site is Kennedy's electronic soapbox, a forum for his beliefs that many typically Democratic positions limit individual freedoms (notably support for gun control and opposition to school vouchers) or trap minorities in endless cycles of poverty and violence (affirmative action, welfare entitlements, public housing). And the site exudes a fervor noticeably absent from the CD. Cloaked in the relative anonymity of the Web, Kennedy labels Democrats "the party of the Klan," and rails about perceived similarities between "extreme Liberals" and Nazis. But even online Kennedy has a habit of ducking sole ownership of his views. He writes in the first person plural, as if intending to amplify CORAD's membership. Then there's his narrative voice as a rap lyricist: Kennedy, a white salesman, writes in a voice he imagines is that of a black MC ("Sit back, relax, while I hip you to the hap").He says he felt no qualms about writing lyrics in which the terms "we" and "us" speak for a group to which he does not belong. He has little time for questions of authenticity and shrugs off the squeamish specter of minstrelsy. He did his homework, he says, talking to "thousands of blacks" in informal settings. ("Say, on an airplane or in an airport," he posits.) "I take an interest in black people, because blacks have an understanding of freedom," he explains. "Blacks and conservatives have a lot in common: We want a couple of things out of life, and that's to be free, to have low taxes, to live where we want, to have a car if we'd like, and not have to abide by the rules of overbearing government."And how did the black participants in Racism Exposed feel about disseminating Kennedy's lyrics? While the MC Shoanna Z was out of town prior to press time and could not be reached for comment, producer Ben Obi says he had his doubts. "Initially, a flag went up," says Obi, a British national of Nigerian descent. "Anybody's initial reaction to this is probably gonna be, 'I don't want to have anything to do with this.' But there's a passion there that has to be respected."In the end, Obi says, he set his qualms aside. "I purely approached it from a musical standpoint," he explains. "As a music producer, it's my job to bring out the best in their project. I'm just trying to enhance what they do." Obi says Kennedy and Gotti told him exactly what they wanted to do: Reach the masses. "They just said they wanted some R&B music that was accessible to anybody," he recalls.Despite the producer's best efforts, the album's sales figures are less than impressive. Though Kennedy says he and Gotti have invested $100,000 in the project, he seems unconcerned about the financial bath he must be taking. That may be because he believes he has found a wealthy new benefactor: The Republican Party.The use of rap music to spur activism is nothing new. KRS-One and Public Enemy's Chuck D have long mixed nation-building with market-testing, and Grandmaster Flash got out the vote for Jesse Jackson way back in '84. Contemporary "raptivists" such as the Black Star-affiliated Black August group easily align with the political left (they recently sent a delegation of rappers to Cuba), as does Mumia 911, a collective spearheaded in part by Spearhead's Michael Franti to agitate for prison reform and a new trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal. If anything, CORAD is raptivism's right-wing doppelganger -- and one that carries the endorsement of the Republican establishment.In January, Kennedy met with Tony Sutton, executive director of the Minnesota state GOP. Says Sutton: "I'm not a connoisseur of hip-hop music, but to me the music has a pretty good beat." It must have been good enough to convince him to give Racism Exposed some exposure -- an item about the disc appeared in the January 25 edition of the party's weekly e-mail update GOP Newsline, in which communication director Bridget Cronin sampled "some of [her] favorite lyrics." Sutton also says he played the album at a recent meeting of the state executive committee and promoted it at last month's Republican National Committee meetings in San Jose. "I had so many requests for it that I didn't have enough copies with me," he beams. "I had to get extra copies from Don Kennedy to mail around to people."Sutton admits he was skeptical of the disc at first. "It sounds kind of strange," he says. "But then you listen to it, and it's good music and it's got a conservative message. Frankly, in order to reach out to young people in general and young African Americans specifically, we need to have somebody other than a guy in a stuffed shirt with a suit and tie on." Sutton says he wasn't aware of CORAD's Web site. Having perused it, he professes surprise at the group's fondness for comparing political opponents to Nazis and Klan members, but he sees no reason for the GOP to distance itself from the group. Deeming CORAD's rhetoric "a little politically incorrect," Sutton adds, "Compared to what liberals call us, [referring to them as Nazis] is probably very kind."Meanwhile, thanks to Sutton's connections, Kennedy is planning to take his CD nationwide. He's working with the College Republicans to distribute the disc at historically black colleges and boasts that the Republican National Committee is considering granting his group $200,000 to further its efforts. (The RNC did not return a call seeking comment.) Instead of getting mad, the Democrats always have the option of getting even. Watch out, East Coast-West Coast rivalry -- this could be the beginning of hip hop's newest feud.

A Feast of Famine

It's no secret that the larger publishing houses are channeling more resources into marketing, PR, and big-bucks deals while squeezing budgets in their editorial departments. Marya Hornbacher's first book, for which HarperCollins paid a six-figure sum, is an unfortunate example of the trend. The cover of Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, features the blue-jeaned, poker-faced, 23-year-old author in a photo strikingly similar to that of Elizabeth Wurtzel, another attractive twentysomething memoirist of misery, on the cover of her Prozac Nation a couple years ago. One presumes that marketing execs at HarperCollins are targeting Hornbacher's book to the same Gen X cult-of-pain readership that took to Prozac Nation, as well as a broader audience, given that other publishing trend: self-excoriation and self-scrutiny via the memoir, the more sensational the better.Part of the draw with Wasted, of course, is the author's tender age. It reminds me of a publishing-biz conversation with a book editor a few months back, summed up by his rueful quote, "Youth will be served." Hornbacher seems to acknowledge this -- and responds to anticipated critiques of her writing -- with a quote from James Agee that concludes her book's introduction: "If I bore you, that is that. If I am clumsy, that may indicate partly the difficulty of my subject, and the seriousness with which I am trying to take what hold I can of it; more certainly, it will indicate my youth, my lack of mastery of my so-called art or craft, my lack perhaps of talent ... A piece of the body torn out by the roots might be more to the point."That last, graphic line is an apt hint of the horrors to come in Wasted, but one questions if they're simply wasted on a culture that sees eating disorders as passe. If so, a well-packaged and -publicized memoir can go a long way toward reviving interest in what even Hornbacher says is "totally '80s." Moreover, in a culture that simultaneously worships and reviles bad girls, anorexics and bulimics may be more timeless than we think. They give themselves over to diseases that are simultaneously beyond and within their control -- and often feature such lurid side effects as promiscuity and drug abuse, as Hornbacher's book details. And with all the 7-year-olds chronically dieting just like their mommies, a first-person account of one child's absurd and all-too-deadly obsessions with weight is bound to have some resonance.Indeed, Hornbacher set off on the road to ruin at an early age. She was already a four-year veteran bulimic by the age of 13, when she visited a psychiatrist and admitted her disease to her parents -- to little, if any, effect. That may explain why she promptly "dove into sluthood with vigor." Yet Hornbacher hadn't seen the worst of it. Over the next seven years, she would alternate binge-and-purge cycles with periods when her daily diet consisted of, say, a cup of yogurt and a bagel, indulging all the while in limitless coffee and cigarettes. She goes in and out of hospitals, high schools, and universities, and goes through a plethora of one-night stands, several boyfriends, various quantities and types of drugs, and two pregnancies, both of which end in miscarriage.The first comes during a family dinner, and she runs to the bathroom. Afterward, she writes, "I remember thinking, very clearly, Well. That was easy. I remember standing up on the toilet when it was over, lifting my skirt up, and looking at the blood coating the inside of my thighs. And then I remember getting distracted. I turned to one side and scrutinized my butt. Fat ass, I thought. Pig." Later, at 15, she attends an exclusive arts boarding school -- a veritable hothouse for the eating disordered -- and falls in with the more competitive anorectic set. Her success among them lands her in the hospital, after which she goes to live with relatives in California. She loves it there, but after spending Christmas with other relatives, whose plumbing she literally bursts with all her undigested food (she'd gone back to bulimia), Hornbacher is yanked back to the hospital in Minneapolis.The most harrowing part of the saga, perhaps because it occurred in the not-too-distant past, comes when the author moves to D.C. to attend American University and achieves her all-time low of 52 pounds. Such a lack of distance is what gives Wasted its raw edge: Hornbacher pulls no punches in describing the stomach-turning aspects of eating disorders, but more importantly, admits up front that she's not cured of them. They no longer rule her life, but they're a part of it; in fact, she now has heart problems that may well cut it short.Yet this same proximity to her ordeal also makes Wasted frequently seem less than fully formed. Hornbacher writes with remarkable energy -- though doctors have diagnosed her with depression, she says she's manic, and readers will likely side with her -- but her bristling, boundless style could have used more fences to contain it, give it shape. Think of Mary Karr's The Liars' Club, which seems to have become the contemporary standard-bearer for "quality" memoirs: Her 320 pages on just a few key years make the book more like a novel than a flat chronicle. Wasted, on the other hand, is a comparatively direct pouring-out of nearly all Hornbacher's 23 years -- as uncontained (and unresolved), in a way, as her desire for and denial of food.Toward the end, commenting on her parents' reaction to yet another hospitalization, Hornbacher writes, "I can see how a worried audience might eventually get a little sick of this particular game." But now the worried audience is much larger than her parents, and this member wished Hornbacher had been able to wrap things up 50 or 75 pages earlier. And while there's no doubt that her experiences have made her wise beyond her years, youth is still evident in sentences like "Passion is strange. Mine is fierce, all-encompassing, a fiery desire for life," and "The wonder of the female body, in all of its impossible secrecy, is understood in some innate sense but is not easily articulated."Such criticisms may be harsh, especially since Hornbacher effectively concedes her shortcomings with that introductory quote. She also announces that she didn't enjoy writing this memoir, and I might glibly add that, overall, I didn't enjoy reading it. But that's not solely the fault of the author. There's a third, mostly ignored figure in the relationship between writer and reader -- the editor -- who could have tamed the book's unwieldiness so that Hornbacher's more elegant prose (and there is some) and more original insights on eating disorders could have shone through.One of Hornbacher's observations is that anorexia has become strangely fetishized in a way that's both bigger and more insidious than the erstwhile waif trend. I concur with that, having personally gotten some admittedly cheap thrills from the more grotesque parts of Wasted (and consequent feelings of guilt for reading about somebody's very real problems like so much pulp fiction). So to what degree does this somewhat base fascination make me complicit in that fetishism? To what degree is the larger genre of sensational memoir -- the literary manifestation of Americans' recent compulsion to confess -- fetishizing pain in general? And finally, in their desire to purge themselves of their stories (pardon the pun), where do the writers of such memoirs stand in all this?


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