Letters to the Editor 

Week of January 2, 2002

Path to Somewhere

A footnote to Rona Abramson's balanced snapshot of the new Bay Bridge east span ("New Bay Bridge Gets Green Light," December 19): Inclusion of a bicycle/pedestrian/wheelchair path in the design is solely due to the perseverance of bicycle activists. Dozens testified at numerous public hearings. They cajoled individual MTC (Metropolitan Transportation Commission) commissioners. They deserve enormous credit.

When Caltrans recommended a new span to Governor Wilson in January 1997, it was to be for motor vehicles only and, Caltrans claimed, would cost less than a billion dollars (plus $40 million to demolish the existing span). The Caltrans advisory panel endorsed this recommendation but noted with foreboding that bicycle and rapid-rail enthusiasts might advocate placing such facilities on the structure. MTC staff rubber-stamped Caltrans' mono-modal (automobiles only) design and blindly accepted the cost figures that everyone now knows were bogus.

The MTC has a well-earned reputation for ignoring public input; nonetheless, the activists succeeded in swaying the commissioners, who overruled staff and approved a bike/pedestrian path. The fact that it will only enable people to pedal between the East Bay and Yerba Buena Island should not obscure the spectacular triumph bicyclists scored in getting a path at all.

California politics are changing. One day we will have public officials who are willing to rein in the automobile and support alternatives. Funds to complete the path to San Francisco will then materialize.

Robert R. Piper, Berkeley

The Sounds of Cultural Appropriationism

It comes as no surprise to me that the current corporate McWeekly version of a once semi-reputable paper has dissolved into the worst clichés of cultural appropriationism in its wack-ass hip-hop coverage, if it can be called that.

The latest affront: Katy St. Clair's pitiful piece on Anticon ("Planet Clair," December 19), as culturally inauthentic a group as exists in the world today. These lame-ohs are to hip-hop what the Bay City Rollers were to funk. Not only did the piece lack any sense of perspective (i.e., how Anticon fits in -- or, more precisely, doesn't -- with the rest of the Bay Area hip-hop scene), but the article's curious phrasing left me wondering a couple times if there was oxygen on Planet Clair. Actual quote: "a Clouddead record ... is indeed harder to follow than Chuck D. If hip-hop is about the message, Anticon seems to be saying, the message needs to change or at least its delivery."

Here's why that's problematic: 1) Chuck D's brilliance was in his tacit bluntness; he was, in fact, easy to follow, which is why Public Enemy clocked multi-platinum sales during their late-'80s-early-'90s peak and also why Spin magazine declared Fear of a Black Planet among the decade's best albums.

To quote Chuck: "Don't believe the hype." Maybe St. Clair had no other, more current, reference point, but still, comparing a group nobody's heard of to an icon everybody's heard of is only something a writer can get away with when they think no one who knows the difference is reading. Furthermore, the implication here seems to be that Clouddead's most salient feature is their obtuse pretentiousness; that being "hard to follow" is somehow a desirable trait for a hip-hop artist to have.

2) Hip-hop's message has always been that of a minority culture (i.e., blacks and Latinos) addressing the dominant cultural ideology of Caucasians, while at the same time making their stylistic and linguistic models attractive to the same. Even after factoring in Eminem, the Beastie Boys, and Bubba Sparkxxx, the white contribution to hip-hop has been minimal, if not irrelevant. That's why St. Clair's point completely misses the point: Hip-hop's message is about changing the dominant cultural paradigm from a multicultural viewpoint, which, for obvious reasons, Anticon will never be able to do, no matter how badly they are ripped off by shady distributors. If Anticon thinks they can make culturally authentic hip-hop without addressing racism in society -- I'm not talking about an Alan Bakke-esque, oxymoronic argument that whites have been oppressed because they can't jump, so therefore they have a right to rock the mike as well as anybody -- they are dead wrong.

At least, the viewpoint of one of Anticon's many detractors should have been included for the sake of objectivity. But the damn thing reads like a love letter to a group known more for their Internet hissy fights and dissing other, more established artists than for anything resembling a hit -- Baudelaire references aside. Okay, they've gotten a lot of press (mostly from white critics, naturally). But the sad truth of the matter is, if Anticon were black, no one would be writing about them. Certainly DJs aren't playing their stuff in clubs. And no one is bumping Dose One in their ride as they negotiate the intersection of Foothill Boulevard and 98th Avenue.

St. Clair also reveals her lack of familiarity with hip-hop's cultural context in her unintentionally humorous remark, "frankly, [hip-hop] still seems stuck in yo, what's my DJ's name land." Even if that were an actual place -- and if so, buy me a ticket on Priceline.com now -- that statement would be woefully erroneous. One wonders, exactly what is St. Clair referring to? Certainly not Bay Area hip-hop, whose twenty years of independent rap history have resulted in an indelible pattern of being nonclichéd and going against the commercial, major-label grain. Has St. Clair even heard the Coup's album, which does a whole lot more than mention the name of DJ Pam the Funkstress? How about other locals like Prophets of Rage, Askari X, Zion-I, Mystic, Del, Blackalicious, or E-40 (who's sold a whole lot more than 43,000 records)?

This article comes not too long after you printed Darren Keast's ridiculously narrow and tragically culturally biased essay on "the state of hip-hop" after 9-11. That article said more about the writer's listening habits, tendency to hang out in hip-hop chat rooms rather than attend shows, and general lack of awareness than anything else. If a tree falls in the woods, it's a safe bet to say your music writers won't hear it because they're too busy reviewing "dance clubs" in Emeryville and Albany.

You probably don't have the chutzpah to print this, but you should at least think about the fact that you can't possibly claim to represent the East Bay's cultural art and music scene without recognizing its diversity. That will prove impossible without a staff that reflects some of that diversity itself. Failing that, at least ask your writers to research what they write about before they write it.

Eric Arnold, Berkeley


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