Monthly Archives: May 2017

African American Museum investigates


It’s people reflecting real circumstances. Generally, you look at the country being prosperous in the 1980s and things like that. But there’s still class issues, there’s still poverty, there’s still violence, there’s still discrimination, racism. So hip-hop and rap is a community voice; it’s real people speaking about real circumstances of where they lived and showing their social conscience. It’s really speaking for the underrepresented and people who don’t have a voice for themselves.

What happens is that you start to have this message and then the musical elements of it catch wildfire, and it starts feeding into evolving genres. Like the social message coming out of rhythm and blues in the 1960s and 1970s, and soul music and funk and jazz, it coalesces into something new on its own. It’s a contemporary reflection of another way of voicing not only creative expression, but cultural expression and commentary on social circumstances, which really is a historical tradition in African-American music. It’s always been that quest for freedom and voicing the concerns of the communities and life circumstances of African Americans, and so it’s our contemporary evolution of that.

he revolutionary, controversial and too-short life of Tupac Shakur has inspired books, documentaries and films from the time he was killed at age 25 in 1996. The latest is the new biopic All Eyes on Me, starring Demetrius Shipp, Jr and directed by Benny Boom. But while the film touches on the forces that shape Tupac as a defining voice of the 1990s hip-hop movement, it doesn’t dive deep enough into the historical context of the genre. In search of a better sense of the musical legacy that molded the legendary artist, sat down with Dwandalyn Reece, curator of music and performing arts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Reece delves into the long history of hip-hop and explains why Tupac is the Bob Dylan of his generation

No Longer Exempt From Trademark Protection

Filing for trademark protection for a word, phrase or symbol is simple enough. But actually getting that trademark has always been much more complicated. Not only must the U.S. Patent and Trademark office decide whether your mark is worthy of protection, but until today, it had the power to turn down your application if it decided your phrase, word or symbol was derogatory. Not anymore, reports The Washington Post’s Robert Barnes: Today, the Supreme Court ruled that a 71-year-old “disparagement clause” of the federal law governing trademarks violates the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on Matal v. Tam in January, was unanimous in its opinion, finding the law in violation of the right to free speech guaranteed by the Constitution. In the opinion delivered by Justice Samuel Alito, he writes current trademark law “strikes at the heart of the First Amendment” by instructing the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to turn down applications for trademarks that contain slurs and other speech that could be considered offensive.

It all started when The Slants, a rock band from Portland, Oregon, filed for a trademark to protect the name of their increasingly popular band in 2010. Their application was rejected on the grounds that the name—an ironic invocation of a racist slur—was disparaging to Asian-Americans. “I took a moment,” Simon Tam, who fronts the band, told the New York Times’ Sarah Jeong. “Then I said, ‘Well, do they know we’re of Asian descent?’” Tam decided to contest the ruling as part of his ongoing attempt to flip a hateful label on its head.

As Tam’s lawsuit worked its way up the courts, it came up against the Lanham Act. Also known as ​the Trademark Act of 1946, the legislation prohibits trademarks from disparaging people, institutions, beliefs or national symbols or bringing them into “contempt, or disrepute.”

The law has been invoked in other trademark denials, as when the group Dykes on Bikes—a lesbian motorcycle club—was denied a trademark because of its “vulgar” name. However, reports the Bay Area News Group’s Sophia Kazmi, the decision was reversed when the group convinced the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that “dyke” is no longer seen as derogatory. Later, Dykes on Bikes withstood a legal campaign to have the trademark dismissed after accusations that it was “scandalous and immoral” and excluded men.

The decision was celebrated by the American Civil Liberties Union, which wrote that turning down The Slants’ application “was censorship, pure and simple.” And another group is celebrating: the Washington Redskins. The Supreme Court opinion is likely to impact the future of the team’s fortunes—and name. The football team has been locked in multi-year litigation over six trademarks associated with the team that were canceled after the USPTO called them disparaging to Native Americans. As Jenny Vrentas reports for Sports Illustrated, the issue of the Redskins’ name among Native Americans is a complex and fraught one. Unlike The Slants or Dykes on Bikes, the name wasn’t created as an attempt by a community to reclaim an offensive term.

Composer Made Melodies Out of Mountainsides

At the turn of the twentieth century, the countries of Europe and their neighboring empires were entering into a period of intense ethnic awareness. Nations were on the brink of a revolutionary upheaval that would redefine their borders, both geographically and psychologically, paving the way for two World Wars and the ‘age of nationalism.’

For Eastern nations, like Armenia, situated on the cusp of East and West, the same search for identity, the answer to the question What is Armenia?, was further complicated by the jockeying of neighboring empires.

Ethnomusicologist Sylvia Alajaji, author of Music and the Armenian Diaspora: Searching for Home in Exile writes that, by the turn of the century, “two ‘Armenias’ were in existence.” Having experienced a formal “carving up” a century earlier between Russian, Persian and Ottoman Empires, Armenia was less a unified nation of like-minded people than it was an ethnic population, scattered across competing empires.

It was divided not only geographically, between East and West, but also by class – between the rural, agrarian peasants who occupied the expansive countrysides, and the intellectual elite in the cities.


Up to that point, the traditions and particularities of Armenia’s large peasant population had been for the most part disregarded by the upper classes. Many urbanites had considered peasant life base and degenerate, but the villages, isolated and untouched by the effects of globalization and modernity, offered a unique opportunity to search for the authentic ‘national spirit’ when the need finally arose. Folk music in particular, the simple songs passed down orally in villages, became a fetishized object of this new movement.

The late nineteenth century saw it become increasingly vogue for musicians to look to the rural countrysides for inspiration. Composers like Jean Sibelius in Finland, Edvard Grieg in Norway and Antonín Dvořák in present-day Czech Republic, gained notoriety for incorporating indigenous musical idioms into their Western-style compositions. Most famously, Hungarian composer Béla Bartók ventured out into the field to collect peasant songs, what he considered the pure sounds of Hungary, and later came to be regarded as a national icon for doing so.

But what does the pursuit of a national identity look like for the Armenians, a people struggling to choose between East or West? And how did music reconcile (or intensify) that schism?

Komitas Vardapet, an Armenian priest and musicologist from Constantinople who traveled across Anatolia collecting and analyzing the music of rural communities, was in many ways similar to Bartók. He received his musical education in Berlin and used his Western training to create a national tradition. He spoke a number of European languages, including French and German, and his primary goal was to promote Armenian music in the West.