Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Border Patrol requests Mexican music encore (Migra Corridos)


Border Patrol requests Mexican music encore

By Ashley Surdin


2:00 a.m. March 17, 2009

“Before you cross the border, remember that you can be just as much a man by chickening out and staying.

“Because it's better to keep your life than ending up dead.”

– “Veinte Años” (“20 Years”)

WASHINGTON – To its arsenal of agents, fences and stealthy sensors skirting the nation's southern border, the U.S. Border Patrol may soon add another weapon in the fight against illegal immigration: a follow-up album.

Yes, as in CD. With singers, guitars, accordions.

In what may be among the lesser-known deterrents exercised by the nation's security forces, the Border Patrol is deploying up-tempo Mexican folk songs about tragic border crossings to dissuade would-be illegal immigrants. The agency has paid – how much, it won't say – a Washington-based advertising company to write, record and distribute an album, “Migra Corridos,” to radio stations in Mexico. Its title is intended to mean “songs of the immigrant,” but migras is commonly understood as a code word for Border Patrol in much of Mexico.

The first CD of five songs was recorded in 2006 and distributed over the past two years. Another CD is scheduled to be ready by May. There are also plans for a collection of similarly themed songs with musical styles geared toward would-be illegal immigrants from Central America.

Many stations in Mexico that play the songs and the listeners who request them are seemingly oblivious to who is behind the bouncy ballads of death, dashed dreams and futile attempts at manhood.

“It's pretty slick,” said Jason Ciliberti, a spokesman with the Border Patrol in Washington.

The music is part of the Border Safety Initiative, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection's push to squash smuggling. The Border Patrol launched “No Más Cruces en la Frontera,” a campaign aimed at educating communities with potential illegal immigrants about the dangers of crossing.

Illegal immigrants can encounter severe hazards on their journey: professional smugglers and bandits who beat, rob, rape and abandon them; bitingly cold or scorching temperatures; snakes, scorpions; drowning; and death by dehydration or exhaustion.

The slogan, which means both “no more crossings on the border” and “no more crosses on the border,” has relied on newspaper, TV and billboard ads.

The most recent twist on the media blitz is “Migra Corridos,” a brainchild of Elevación, an advertising firm that specializes in targeting the Latino market. Elevación, which had been working on the border campaign, sold the Border Patrol on the idea of songs-as-deterrents.

The five-song album draws on corridos, popular Mexican narrative ballads with roots in Spain's Middle Ages. Re-energized in recent decades by such popular Mexican groups as Los Tigres del Norte, the genre reverberates deeply with Mexican and Mexican-American communities, said Martha Chew Sanchez, the author of “Corridos in Migrant Memory” and professor at St. Lawrence University in New York.

The songs, Sanchez said, humanize the experiences of those communities with tales of love, death, migration, globalization and social and political events. More recently, there has been an explosion in the popularity of narcocorridos – ballads that recount the drug traders, their violent exploits and, often, their deaths.

Among the perils mentioned on “Migra Corridos”: a cousin who dies of dehydration, a mother who is raped and beaten by a child-killing smuggler, one man's suffocation in an airtight tractor-trailer.

“He put me in a trailer

“There I shared my sorrows

“With 40 illegals

“They never told me

“That this was a trip to hell.

– “El Respeto” (“Respect”)

Whatever the subject, the songs can connect with listeners, as long as they tell a compelling narrative, Sanchez said.

“Migra Corridos” lives up to its dance-inducing predecessors, despite its somber stories. The music is peppy, even cheerful.

The songs were distributed to six Mexican states, where, according to Elevación's research, many migrants left for the border: Zacatecas, Michoacan, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Jalisco and Chiapas. Elevación contacted stations and asked them to play the songs as part of the border initiative.

“When we approached the Mexican media, we approach it as a humanitarian campaign,” said Pablo Izquierdo, vice president of Elevación. “We didn't tell them who was behind it because consumer research indicated that it wasn't going to be as well-received.”

But, Izquierdo said, there's nothing fake about the songs. “It's all heartfelt, and it's all from the point of view of the people.”

Izquierdo said feedback from the stations was positive and that even though the CDs were not for sale, listeners started requesting the songs.

It is difficult to measure how effective the corridos have been in aiding the government's effort, but the Border Patrol's Ciliberti cited a steady decline in deaths and rescues along the southern border, attributing it to the agency's broader approach to illegal immigration. According to Ciliberti, 492 people died along the southern border in 2005. Last year, 390 deaths were recorded. In 2005, the Border Patrol assisted 2,550 people in distress in that same area. Last year, 1,263 were rescued.

“There's no mention of being punitive in any of these corridos. These are simply about the dangers,” he said.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Eric Carle: The Surprising Dark Side of the Very Hungry Caterpillar

The Surprising Dark Side of the Very Hungry Caterpillar

Once upon a time, Eric Carle wrote a children's book that was so comfy, it came with its own cocoon. Turns out that cute little bug went through a very big metamorphosis.
Ramin Setoodeh
From the magazine issue dated Mar 23, 2009

Eric Carle has made millions from the efforts of a certain Very Hungry Caterpillar, but when it comes to hungry crabs—well, that's another story. Behind Carle's home near Key Largo, Fla., there's a tidy garden perched on the edge of the Florida Straits with a view that seems to stretch all the way to Cuba. Carle doesn't really know what he's put in the ground—"I know nothing about plants," he says—but he's created a vibrant quilt nonetheless, thanks to an unusual template. "I lay my garden out like my books," he says. "I want a patch of green here, a patch of red here, pink in between." Also like his books—which include "The Very Busy Spider," "The Mixed-Up Chameleon" and Carle's biggest hit, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar"—his garden is full of animals. On a normal sunny day, pelicans flock overhead, iguanas crawl around and you can sometimes see dolphins in the ocean on the horizon. We meet a harmless spider and a stray cat named Whitey. Then there are the crabs. Beneath the surface of this little patch of heaven, a colony of crustaceans has taken up residence, and like you-know-who, they're burrowing into everything in sight, especially a coconut palm tree near the water. "They dig from both sides and the roots are exposed to the air," says Carle, with a disheartened look on his face. "My garden is dying."

It's a surprising down note for a man whose 70-plus collected works are the kid-lit version of a ray of sunshine. In truth, Carle, 80, has plenty to smile about. His 200-word story about a caterpillar who devours a sausage, a cupcake, a watermelon and more—there are holes drilled into the book to represent all that nibbling—celebrates its 40th anniversary this week. "Caterpillar" has sold 29 million copies, making it the most successful picture book this side of "Peter Rabbit"—more popular than "Goodnight Moon" or "The Cat in the Hat." The empire of caterpillar pajamas, board games, cell-phone accessories and other Carle creations takes in $50 million a year. "My friends, my family, my editors, my publisher, we all wondered why it's been so successful," Carle says. "It is a book about hope. If you're an insignificant caterpillar, you can grow up to be a big butterfly in the world." But what most of Carle's fans don't know is that, like those crabs gnawing away at his garden, there's something dark lurking underneath his colorful bug book.

Carle was born in 1929 in Syracuse, N.Y., to immigrant parents from Germany. He remembers his first six years fondly: Mickey Mouse and Flash Gordon, family camping trips, the big windows in his kindergarten class. When he was 6, his mother got homesick and the family moved back to Stuttgart. They lived in a big, four-story house with many of his relatives. "My grandmother had nine sisters," Carle says. "I had an interesting, wacky family. They're all liars but wonderful storytellers." Carle had trouble adjusting to his new country. His first-grade teacher still haunts, especially because Carle once picked up a ringing phone, and the teacher lashed his palms with a bamboo switch in front of the class. "I was this free American kid," Carle says, "but I was careful after that."

When World War II broke out, Carle's father was drafted by the Germans and his family was engulfed in the chaos of war. "We spent many hours in our cellar," he says, his voice breaking a bit. "It was scary at times. The nearest bomb was maybe 20 feet away, and it shook the house. [The bombs] came closer and closer, and when it passed, my mother took my head and put it in her lap. I will never forget that. There was no panic. It was over." He developed a special bond at school with his art teacher, Herr Krauss, who secretly showed him the works of Picasso, Matisse and Braque, all banned by Hitler. He remembers wading in the Rhine when a warplane flew by and shot at him. The bullets missed him by a few feet. He also remembers an unexpected knock at his family's house, days before the Germans surrendered. "Some Nazi official came to the door and said to my mother, 'Your son tomorrow morning has to report to the railroad station, we'll give him a bazooka.' I thought it would be exciting to get a bazooka. But she didn't let me go."

The Americans saved him, in more ways than one. He went to work as a file clerk in the denazification department of the United States military government. After years of starving, he was allowed access to the troops' kitchen. In his autobiography, "The Art of Eric Carle," he remembers swiping "peanut-butter sandwiches, lumps of butter, cubes of sugar, leftover bits of steak" for his family. It took two and a half more years for Carle's father to return home; he'd been sent to a Russian prison camp. The man whom Carle met at the trolley looked like an 80-pound ghost. "He was different, and I was different," Carle says. "I was going to art school. I was into art and girls." And Carle still wanted to go back to America. He finally returned in 1952, with only $40 and dreams of a brighter future.

Carle didn't publish his first book until he was 38, and that was just the illustrations for the now classic "Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?" He had spent the first half of his professional career in advertising and graphic design, and he was able to woo a book editor named Ann Beneduce after he sent her his one-of-a-kind business card. "It was wonderful," Beneduce says. "It had a big whale folded around and inside, there was a ladybug. I had been kind of looking for somebody who could do illustrations that were appealing to children. It was so visually appealing." Carle created his art using a technique of layering colored tissue paper on a white board. In person, they're kind of like Matisse's enormous cutouts. One of the first ideas he suggested to Beneduce—he had so many, he kept them in a brown cardboard box—was a week in the life of a worm named Willi. Beneduce didn't think a worm was sympathetic enough. "We talked about other animals," Carle says, "and eventually she said, 'How about a caterpillar?' And I said, 'butterfly.' " There was just one last problem: "We couldn't find a manufacturer who could guarantee the holes would line up," says Beneduce, who had to go all the way to Japan to get the first printing of the "Caterpillar" books made. It became an instant bestseller.

Carle acknowledges, somewhat obliquely, how much his life in Germany affected his art. "With my books," Carle says, "I try to recapture a period I should've had and didn't—for more fun, more nonsense, more humor." But when you know his background it's almost impossible not to look at his work without seeing echoes from his past. Despite the colorful hopefulness of his stories, they're suffused with a sense of loneliness—that solitary caterpillar, making its way in the world. In fact, the opening of "Willi the Worm" read: "This is Willi Worm. He is very hungry. He hasn't eaten through anything for a long time." There's even something about the way he describes the caterpillar's diet ("On Saturday he ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese … ") that evokes the way he describes what he ate after the war when he went to work for the Americans. His own favorite book is "Do You Want to Be My Friend?" about a mouse that ventures on his own, in search of companionship, while a green snake slithers nearby. Carle says in his mind he dedicated the story to his best childhood friend from back in Syracuse. "He has the memory of one year in kindergarten in the United States, where he had every kind of color available," Beneduce says, "and all the things he didn't have when he got to Germany."

It's hard not to wonder if he hasn't constructed his life to purge those dark childhood memories. In person, he is the antithesis of dour. "He looks very much like Santa Claus," says his assistant, Motoko Inoue, and with his deep laugh and raspy voice, he sounds like Santa, too. He's a delightful host whose stories are punctuated by affectionate smiles. His house in Florida is bathed in color. The sun pours into the kitchen and big windows peer out to the blue coast. His desk is covered in scraps of rainbow tissue paper. He makes sure that every fan who writes to him gets a response. He also spends a great deal of time maintaining the country's first picture-book museum, which opened six years ago in Amherst, Mass. A friend designed the 40,000-square-foot building, but painting a housefly in each urinal was Carle's impish idea. "You have 80 percent less spillage because guys aim at it," he says. He hasn't written a book in two years, but he says that's only because he's content with taking it easy. He likes to sleep in, play solitaire and go for walks. Carle seems to have reached a sweet spot in his life—he posted a picture on his blog recently of him eating breakfast with a spoonful of his favorite food: Black Forest honey. "I'm very happy," he says. "In fact, I told my wife I've never been so happy." It might have taken him 40 years, but Eric Carle is finally as free as a butterfly.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Clay Shirky: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

A stunning and sweeping take-down of newspapers as the deer-in-the-headlights of the Internet...if the headlights had been visible for fifteen years. Read it at Clay Shirky's blog HERE.

Global Motherf*ckers (cursing around the world)

Global Motherf*ckers
Does every culture use the suggestion of maternal incest as an insult?
By Nina Shen Rastogi
Posted Thursday, March 12, 2009, at 6:47 PM ET

A mythical beast known as the "grass-mud horse" has become an Internet phenomenon in China. The New York Times reported Thursday that the alpacalike creature's Mandarin name just happens to be a very, very dirty pun. Times style rules prevent the paper from clarifying the joke, but other, less-dignified outlets explain that the phrase Cao ni ma is a homonym for "fuck your mother" in Chinese. Is some variant of motherfucker used all over the world?

Pretty much. While it's not quite a universal insult, variations on the command to commit incest with one's mother appear in every region of the globe. Anthropologists note that, across cultures, the most severe insults tend to involve a few basic themes: your opponent's family, your opponent's religion, sex, and scatology. Because motherfucker covers two of these topics—plus incest, a nearly global taboo—it's a popular choice just about everywhere. In Mandarin Chinese alone, riffs on the basic phrase include Cao ni ma ge bi, meaning "fuck your mother's cunt," and Cao ni da ye, "fuck your elder uncle." Given the Chinese culture of ancestor worship, Cao ni zu shong shi ba dai, or "fuck your ancestors of 18 generations," may be the worst incest instruction of all.

Incest-related invectives are only one class of mother insults, which may impugn a mother's sexual integrity—as in the Italian phrase "If the streets were paved with pricks, your mother would walk on her ass"—or suggest that the speaker is about to rape or violate the listener's mother himself. (For example, the great Turco-Mongolian curse, "I urinate on your father's head and have intercourse with your mother!")

In Mediterranean cultures, where the relationship between mother and son is particularly sacred, insults about incest carry special potency. The nastiest Greek curses, for example, are gamo ti mana sou, gamo tin Panagia sou, and gamo to Khristo sou—"fuck your mother," "fuck your madonna," and "fuck your Christ," respectively. According to G. Legman's classic Rationale of the Dirty Joke, "Go fuck your mother" (Idy v kibini matri) is the "Russian ultimate-insult." Other cultures that venerate motherhood use variations of the phrase as well. Mexicans like to hurl the invective chinga tu madre at their rivals. During the Vietnam War, the Vietnamese exclamation du me—literally, "fuck mother"—morphed into the popular American military slang term doo-mommie.

African cultures yield some colorful entries in the motherfucking canon. Anthropologist Philip Mayer, in a 1951 article on joke-telling among the Gusii people of Kenya, noted that close friends were likely to rib one another with the directive, "Go eat your mother's anus!" The Igbo people of Nigeria use the phrase O-ra nna ye!, or "fucker of his mother!"

The first known print appearance of the English phrase—as the adjectival intensifier motherfucking—dates to a legal document from 1889. In a case before the Texas Court of Appeals, it was reported that the defendant had been referred to by another man as "that God damned mother-f—cking, bastardly son-of-a-bitch!" The phrase was considered so vile in late 19th-century America that, in another Texas court case, it was argued that a man who had been called a "mother-fucking son-of-a-bitch" by a person he later shot "could not be found guilty of a higher offense than manslaughter," so grave was the offense.

Going back even further, medieval Arabic literature is a font of motherfucking, mostly in the form of ritualized insult-dueling. For example, Al-Nu`man ibn al-Mundhir, a sixth-century king of Al-Hirah, was lampooned in a poem as "a king who fondles his mother and his slave(s),/ His joints are flaccid, his penis the size of a kohl-needle." An eighth-century Persian poet named Bashshar ibn Burd dissed another poet, Hammad Ajrad, by writing, "Ajrad jumps on his mother: a sow giving suck to a sucker." To which Hammad responded: "You are called Burd's son, but you are another's. But even if you were Burd's son (may you fuck your mother!), who is Burd?"

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Reinhold Aman of the journal Maledicta, Timothy Jay of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary, and Robert Vanderplank of the Oxford University Language Center.
Nina Shen Rastogi is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Professional Video Gamer, Washed Up at 23

On the Edge
Once on TV, now just another gamer
Yazan Ammari, 23, earned nearly a quarter of a million dollars as a professional video-game player. Now he's back at Mom and Dad's.
By P.J. Huffstutter

6:41 PM PST, March 6, 2009

Reporting from Granada Hills, Calif. — YAZAN AMMARI, Gamer

How did the renowned "clowN" -- dreaded, revered and awesomely lethal with a SG552 commando high-powered assault rifle -- end up back home with Mom and Dad?

ClowN, not so long ago, was a hero to every kid whose parents ever nagged that computer games were a waste of time.

He earned nearly a quarter of a million dollars over three years as a professional player of "Counter-Strike: Source" -- your ultimate run-around-and-shoot-everything-in-sight-before-someone-blows-you-up kind of game. It's played by about 10 million people.

But these are tough times -- canceled tournaments, dwindling prizes, sponsorless players adrift like wandering samurai.

"Suddenly, I'm Yaz," said the 23-year-old college senior as commandos scrambled across his computer monitor. "Just Yaz."

Yazan Ammari -- tan and lanky, with a huge, cheeky grin -- is back in his old room with a neon-green gaming trophy doubling as a lamp and foam-board prize checks leaning against the wall.

The Marina del Rey apartment that he lived in rent-free while playing in a now-defunct DirecTV series on gaming is gone. His family had to help him pay off $6,000 in credit card debt. He is about to graduate from Cal State Northridge in business marketing and has no idea what he's going to do.

"There's nothing to do but move on," Yaz said.

The atmosphere at home these days is laden with a certain I-told-you-so kind of feeling. While his mom and dad -- Roxy and Monty, both Jordanian immigrants -- are proud of their only son, they're also worried.

In the living room, they watched CNN as headlines scrolled across the bottom of the screen -- mass layoffs, squatters taking over foreclosed homes, people committing suicide over financial troubles.

Yaz was practicing in his bedroom. Got to stay sharp.

"He has to finish school and start working," Monty said to Roxy, ignoring the occasional sound of explosions from their son's room. "There is a time to move on."

Father and son have talked. Yaz admitted that he's terrified to graduate. His father said he could always work at the family's tow-truck business.

Yaz stood up to stretch his legs and grab a snack. He grimaced as he walked past his closet. Inside, shelves were crammed with software, hard drives and video graphics cards he had won over the years. Somewhere, he thought, was a pair of diamond earrings.

His BMW M3 with loads of extras is long gone. He's embarrassed to say what he spent on the 19-inch deep-dish customized black rims. "Stupidity," Yaz said. "Sheer, utter stupidity."

Now, he's grateful to be driving the used Toyota Highlander that his father bought him. His father had warned him to be frugal. " 'Buy what you need, not what you want,' " Yaz recalled. "Parents know everything."

So, he is spending less time playing and more studying and helping his father. He's launched a website, Gamerworld.net, devoted to professional computer game players and fans. Maybe he can make some money off it.

The last four years haven't been a waste, Yaz reasoned. He's traveled. He's negotiated contracts. He's figured out how to do his own laundry.

Sitting back down at his computer, his fingers blurred across the keyboard as he led a team through a sprawling, abandoned train depot somewhere in the Middle East. He threw a flash-bang grenade. The sound of the explosion rattled the room's windows.

His mother peeked into the bedroom and closed the door.

Try as he might, the dream of making a comeback still haunts his thoughts. He's tempted by a fundraiser offering a $50 prize and all the soda he can drink. There's a tournament in Montreal where the cash prize would pay for his airfare and hotel . . . if he wins.

The sums are paltry, but the thought of being forgotten is worse. "It's kind of like those one-hit wonders in a song," he said. "Now people just look at them, laugh at them, they don't even think about them. Nobody even knows their names anymore."

He glanced at his watch and sighed. 7:30 p.m. He had classes the next day, starting at 8 a.m.

"I should call it an early night," clowN told his teammates via headset.

Groans and profanity filled his ears.

"Really?" asked Solange "fireb0mb" LeBreton, 18, from her home in Quebec.

"Loser," said Tarik "rockyte" Elkhatib, 22, in Ohio.

Outside, the moon was rising, bright and fat. ClowN was restless, drumming the desk with his fingertips, eyes roaming the screen. A crackly voice called through the computer speakers.

Lock and load . . . lock and load . . . lock and load . . .


On the Edge Staff writer P.J. Huffstutter and photographer Genaro Molina are traveling the country, chronicling the hopes and struggles of Americans in this time of economic hardship. latimes.com /hardtimes Find stories from this series and from the Business series "Surviving Recession: A Consumer Guide."

Monday, March 02, 2009

How will Obama's presidency change hip-hop?

Stompin' in My Air Force One
How will Obama's presidency change hip-hop?
By Jonah Weiner
Posted Thursday, Feb. 26, 2009, at 6:50 AM ET

Barack Obama arrived at the Oval Office with a long parade of expectations in tow. One special-interest group with a particularly colorful wish list is the hip-hop community, which has been plotting this moment for years. If Obama makes his policy decisions based on Nas' 1996 single "If I Ruled the World," for instance, he will appoint Coretta Scott King to a mayoralty, fling open the gates of Attica, and grant every citizen an Infiniti Q45. If he follows the Pharcyde's more modestly pitched "If I Were President," he'll buy Michelle some new clothes and treat himself to a new pair of sneakers. If he heeds the urgent lessons of Public Enemy's 1994 video for "So Whatcha Gone Do Now?" Obama will staff the Secret Service exclusively with beret-clad black militants or else risk assassination at the hands of a far-reaching neo-Nazi conspiracy.

Hip-hop fantasies of a black executive have popped up throughout the genre's history, visions of empowerment that speak to a real-life condition of powerlessness. In this sense, they're merely a loftier version of the standard hip-hop fantasies of potency, whether it's sexual domination, VIP access, or street-corner supremacy.

With Obama's win, this dynamic stands to change. For 25-odd years, hip-hop has been black America's main ambassador to the white American mainstream. How will hip-hop see itself now that the most powerful man in the country is a) black and b) a Jay-Z fan? Obama is doubtless the warmest—and smartest—rap critic ever to take the oath of office. When he has praised hip-hop, he has done so with near-impeccable taste. (His admiration for Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Ludacris, and Kanye West would displease no rap blogger worth his RSS feed.) When he's criticized it, he's spoken with none of the condescension or cluelessness politicians often bring to the endeavor. For him, hip-hop is an art form, not culture-war fodder. "I love the art of hip-hop," he told MTV last year. "I don't always love the message." Though it's too early to say precisely how, there are already clues as to the effect Obama's rise will have on both.

In the short term, the answer is simple: euphoria. Since November, Young Jeezy has teamed up with Jay-Z for a remix of the former's "My President," in which Obama figures as the ultimate status symbol: "My president is black, my Maybach too." Busta Rhymes and Ron Browz released a remix of the club hit "Pop Champagne," the title of which rhymes neatly, they discovered, with "Barack campaign." Nas, Common, and will.i.am recorded giddy follow-ups to the Obama-boosting tracks they penned during his run.

In the long term, one useful way to imagine Obama's effect on hip-hop is to consider the music that might have resulted from his defeat: probably some of the angriest hip-hop we'd have heard since the late '80s and early '90s. That was the era of N.W.A, young men broadcasting wrathfully from blighted Compton; Public Enemy, Long Island agitators with the Panthers in their hearts and revolution on the brain; and a subsequent school of East Coasters, Nas and Mobb Deep among them, who traded sawed-off animus for a hollowed-out, anaesthetized cool. Despite hip-hop's prosperous rise in the intervening years, an Obama loss would have offered a painful reminder of the ways black success in America remains circumscribed.

Does his win risk obscuring this? Will Obama make grappling with social inequity and racial injustice trickier for rappers? It can be harder to speak truth to power when power looks like you. The rap duo Dead Prez exemplifies this dilemma with the recent "PolitriKKKs," a song that offsets conciliatory language—"I don't want to discourage my folk, I believe in hope"—with skepticism about the new president: "Either way it's still white power, it's the same system, it just changed form." In three months, the song's official video has notched a scant 12,200 views on YouTube—a would-be party crasher turned away at the door, left to hawk downers in the parking lot.

The predicament doesn't just apply to rabble-rousers like Dead Prez. There is something inherently radical about hip-hop, period, a genre in which the historically voiceless command the microphone and, from the repurposed DJ equipment of hip-hop's South Bronx infancy to the artist-owned labels of today, the means of production. Obama's rise might weaken the position of those less explicitly political MCs, for instance, who rap about the allure of the drug trade in neighborhoods low on viable careers, or those whose gangsta tales make an implicit point about the conditions that create gangstas in the first place. Even an unabashedly crass commercialist like 50 Cent casts his boasts of alpha-male domination as a socioeconomic symptom: "Some say I'm gangsta, some say I'm crazy—if you ask me, I say I'm what the 'hood made me." Going forward, there may be less patience for this line of thinking. Our president overcame the disadvantages of growing up black and fatherless—what's your excuse?

This raises another point, about Obama the role model. For years, America's most visible black heroes have been athletes and entertainers; commentators have observed that Obama's place in the mainstream imagination was prepared for him by people like Arthur Ashe, Sydney Poitier, Tiger Woods, and Will Smith. We can add to this list Jay-Z, probably the most iconic hip-hop role model of all time. Indeed, the two men form a mutual appreciation society: Jay-Z has called himself "the Barack of rhymers"; Obama appropriated Jay's shoulder-brush maneuver on the stump and gave him choice inauguration seats.

Their affinity goes deeper. Among Jay-Z's masterstrokes is that he never tried to rewrite the rules of the game beyond the one that said a black man couldn't win. While he takes pains to portray his success as, at bottom, a racial coup, he's never been interested in dismantling the status quo so much as infiltrating and mastering it. This is a fair description of what Obama did, too—with one crucial exception. For Jay-Z, the fact that he got rich as a businessman constitutes its own rebellion. Obama, though, is a former community organizer who chose public service over private-sector paychecks. His example might open up new sorts of narratives in hip-hop, ones where power isn't a synonym for wealth.

In this regard, T.I.'s 2008 CD, Paper Trail, might be the first proper album of the Obama age. It is a work of personal reckoning well-suited for the "new era of responsibility," the bipolar chronicle of a gangsta passionately defending and critiquing the choices that have brought hard times upon him. (T.I. will be headed to jail this year for amassing a small ballistics stockpile.) "Your values is in disarray, prioritizing horribly," he raps, "unhappy with the riches 'cause you're piss-poor morally." This might mark the first time that moral shortcoming has been invoked in a diss rhyme—and the line gains heft when you imagine T.I. aiming it not just at competitors but at himself. More recently, the flamboyantly boorish Cam'ron released a charmingly downsized single, "I Hate My Job," which imagines the daily frustrations of an office girl with dreams of a nursing career and an ex-con trying to re-enter the workforce. At a basic level, Obama—and, to be sure, the recession—has put social awareness into vogue, and if he helps to foreclose a certain radicalism in hip-hop, these examples suggest a new style of political engagement, distinct from the long-marginalized sermons of so-called conscious rap.

What changes would Obama himself like to see? In campaign-trail interviews, he said he could do with less materialism, misogyny, and N-words in the music, even as he recognized the complex circumstances that foster those preoccupations. Talking about rap, he often sounds like the hip homeroom teacher affectionately telling his students to stand up straight. In one of Obama's most widely circulated quotes about hip-hop, he offered a gentle sartorial admonishment: "Brothers should pull their pants up." On the score of materialism and misogyny, his wish might come true. Getting natural-waist jeans into heavy rotation on BET? Well, fixing the economy might be easier.
Jonah Weiner is a senior editor at Blender and has written about music for the Village Voice and the New York Times.

Americans' lasting mark on Iraq: colorful, complex tattoos

Americans' lasting mark on Iraq: colorful, complex tattoos
Popular designs include tigers, dragons, and swords, although overt displays of the body art remain somewhat taboo.
By Tom A. Peter | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

from the March 3, 2009 edition

Baghdad - Before US troops rolled into Iraq, Robert Eagle, an Iraqi, had seen his fair share of tattoos. There were lots of traditional Bedouin designs – simple patterns of lines and dots – and prisoners who scrawled loved ones' names using ink and a sewing needle, but nothing more complicated than this.

"These were terrible tattoos," says Mr. Eagle, who goes by the English translation of his name.

It wasn't until US forces arrived and Eagle began working alongside American and British security contractors inked with dragons, Chinese characters, and a host of other designs that he realized there existed a world of unexplored potential. Within months, he'd gotten a colorful eagle with flaming wings on his arm, the first of several tattoos.

Nearly six years into the Iraq war, the American presence has literally left its mark on the Iraqi people. Tattoos are among a number of Western trends that have crept into society here. Although US and British soldiers are largely responsible for introducing them to Iraqis, a number of refugees who spent time in more open Arab countries are helping to spread their popularity, despite legal and religious issues surrounding them.

"Before the war, no one knew about the cultures from outside, but now so many people know about Western culture," says Kawakeb Salah Hamed, a sociology professor at Baghdad University. "Now, young people like to do almost anything they see in Western culture."

Among US service members, tattoos are extremely popular, and as soldiers patrolled the streets or worked with Iraqi security forces, many locals took notice of their elaborate and colorful body art. At the same time, Iraqis who'd been exiled during the Saddam era and learned the business in Lebanon and Jordan began returning to open shops that offer Western-style designs.

While the industry is still in early phases of development, the more advanced tattoos have attracted a wider spectrum of people than the handmade prison and Bedouin tattoos did. One Baghdad tattoo artist says he's inked everyone from doctors and businessmen to Army officers and unemployed youths.

"In Saddam's time, people could not make tattoos," says Ali Naser Mohamed, a security contractor, who has both biceps covered in ink. He says he knew of at least one person jailed for six months for his Western-style tattoo.

Tigers, dragons, and swords are popular. One artist even offers Metallica designs.

Tariq al-Hemdani first saw Western tattoos when he sought refuge in Lebanon in 2005. He'd spent several years as a prisoner during Saddam's regime and "saw tattoos made with needles in prison, and I didn't want one," he says. "But when I saw how it was done with a machine in Lebanon, that made me want a tattoo."

First he got a flower on his heart in honor of his girlfriend, still in Iraq. When he returned to Iraq in 2007, he got another tattoo of a snake wrapped around a sword at one of Baghdad's new tattoo parlors.

Tattoos were never technically illegal in Iraq, but under Saddam they floated in legal limbo. "Nobody has been sent to prison because of a tattoo," says Tareq Hareb, head of the cultural law assembly.

Still, while people with traditional designs were left alone, those with tattoos of people's names say they were harassed and even beaten by authorities who discovered their inked arms. Tattoo shops were not allowed. The treatment, whether official policy or not, led to a widespread consensus that tattoos were illegal.

Today, much of that same uncertainty remains. Government employees and soldiers are the only groups that the law forbids from getting tattooed, but Mr. Hareb says this law is loosely enforced.

Tattoos are technically forbidden by Islam, considered an unnecessary alteration of God's creation. However, given their place in traditional Arab culture, many Muslims overlook the rule.

Given these concerns, tattoo artists operate largely in shadows, fearing unwanted attention from the government or Muslim fundamentalists.

"Business is good here, but ... I'm afraid the police or Islamic extremists will try to shut me down," says one artist, speaking anonymously due to legal concerns. "I'd like to find another job, but I'm too old to change careers. This isn't like doing artwork for me anymore because of the stress. Now I'm just trying to make a living."

Despite the confusion over the legality of tattoos, their cultural currency is strengthening. Tattooed Iraqis tend to conceal their designs in public, but when someone spots a cheetah on their bicep, now they say that the only harassment they receive is someone pestering them about where they can get one, too.

"Everybody who sees my tattoos says they're beautiful. Nobody bothers me about it," Eagle says.

After seeing his tattoo, Eagle says his wife wants a butterfly drawn on her shoulder. The only thing stopping her is that Baghdad's tattoo artists are men, and Eagle says it wouldn't be appropriate for another man to tattoo his wife.

"Many men think it's appealing for women to have tattoos," says Mrs. Hamed, who adds that many of her female students with traditional tattoos are now embarrassed by their outmoded designs.