#MusicMonday: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

On this day in 1992 the Los Angeles riots broke out in response to two specific incidents in the city and general mounting racial tensions. Just over a year prior an African American man, Rodney King, was beaten and tasered by police during a traffic stop/chase resulting in the officers involved being charged with excessive force.

Rodney King

Also around the same time a teenage African American girl, Latasha Harlins, was shot in a convenience store when the Korean-American shopkeeper accused the girl of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper grabbed the girl who hit the woman in order to break free. As the girl walked away the shopkeeper shot her in the back of the head. The girl was holding 2 dollars in one hand when her body was found by investigators. The 51-year-old woman who shot her was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and only ordered to pay a $500 fine and served no prison time.

On April 29, 1992 the officers in the Rodney King trial were acquitted of excessive force and assault charges based on blurry footage at the beginning of a tape showing the beating in which King tried to run away toward an officer.

The acquittal of these officers on top of the light sentencing of the shopkeeper in the death of Latasha Harlins caused many in the black community to further increase their distrust of the criminal justice system after years of accusations of excessive force by the LAPD against African Americans.

The racial tension between blacks and Koreans in LA had also long been brewing due to perceived slights on both sides. Many African Americans viewed the migrants as newcomers who were profiting off of the black community while simultaneously mistreating, stereotyping, and disrespecting them. Cultural differences and language barriers exacerbated the problem as well as economic difficulties facing the area.

All of these tensions came to a head when news of the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King reached South Central Los Angeles. Riots and looting broke out that lasted for days and resulted in 55 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion of damage. The National Guard was called in and the riots lasted for 6 days. More than 12,000 people were arrested. 65% of looted stores were Korean owned, but black and Latino-owned stores were also looted.

The events leading up to the riots, the riots themselves, and the aftermath all inspired and prompted responses from musicians of many genres, especially hip hop and rap artists. Here are 5 songs that came out of the Los Angeles riots.

  • “Hellrazor” – Tupac, 1997 (posthumous release)tupac

Lyrics that reference Latasha Harlins’ death: “Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why
Little girl like LaTasha, had to die
She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot
Her little body couldn’t take it, it shook and dropped”

Tupac also made mention of Latasha in several of his other songs including “Something 2 Die 4,” “Thugz Mansion,” and “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto,” in which he raps, “Tell me what’s a black life worth/A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts.” He also dedicated “Keep Ya Head Up” to Latasha.

  • “Black Korea” – Ice Cube, 1991

Released after Latasha Harlins’ death but before the riots, this song was accused of inciting violence against Asian Americans and encouraging racism against them by African Americans. The song sheds light on the tensions between the two groups in South Central Los Angeles.

“Thinkin’ every brother in the world’s out to take
So they watch every damn move that I make
They hope I don’t pull out a gat and try to rob
They funky little store, but, b****, I got a job.”

  • “Livin’ on the Edge”- Aerosmith, 1993

Aerosmith has said that this song was inspired by the LA riots, but the lyrics do not specifically state anything that directly links back to the riots. Critics of the song argued it was a half-hearted attempt at social commentary.

“There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes
We’re seein’ things in a different way
And God knows it ain’t his
It sure ain’t no surprise”
  • “Free Your Mind” – En Vogue, 1992freeyourmind
The female group took a more positive approach and encouraged unity and discouraged stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
“Why oh why must it be this way
Before you can read me you gotta learn how to see me, I said
Free your mind and the rest will follow
Be colour blind, don’t be so shallow.”
  • “Black Tie, White Noise” – David Bowie, 1993
In Los Angeles with his new wife, model Iman, Bowie witnessed the riots firsthand. This experience inspired “Black Tie, White Noise.” Bowie said of the riots: “It was awesome and numbing and it was the most apocalyptic experience I’ve been through in my life. It was a feeling of the irreconcilable differences that seem to have been fabricated in America and how hard it will be to reconcile those differences, to heal the wound, which is quite gaping.”
“Getting my facts from a Benneton ad
I’m lookin’ through African eyes
Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire
I’ve got a face, not just my race.”

#MusicMonday: Victorian Ghost Story Traditions in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams

A Christmas classic, this 1963 song by Andy Williams describes Christmas traditions, including some we no longer practice.

Have you ever been singing along and gotten to this line and wondered what it was all about?

“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow (all familiar to us now)
There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories of, Christmases long, long ago (not so much).”

What do scary ghost stories have to do with Christmas? Isn’t that more for Halloween? Not so much during the Victorian era–an era that has inspired many of our modern Christmas traditions.

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“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written by Edward Pola and George Wyle in 1963 and recorded by Andy Williams that same year for his first Christmas album. It’s an up tempo celebration of all things Christmas, particularly spending time with family and friends and general merriment of the season. But that one line about scary ghost stories has always made me curious. The answer can be found in the Victorian Era.

It was during the Victorian Era (1837-1901; the reign of Queen Victoria) that Christmas became more widespread and popularly celebrated in England and the United States. Queen Victoria’s marriage to German Prince Albert brought many Germanic Christmas traditions to Britain, which also trickled over to the United States. One of the most noteworthy was that of decorating the Christmas tree.

Other modern Christmas traditions with roots in Victorian England include sending Christmas cards, caroling, and Christmas crackers (cookies/sweets). And the telling of ghost stories on Christmas eve, such as A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge is visited by 3 spirits.

It was during the Victorian era that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which also helped to popularize Christmas celebrations as well as notions that the holiday should be associated with family, gathering together, goodwill, and charity.

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A Christmas Carol’s continued popularity is actually one of the few ways our modern society continues to include those “scary ghost stories” of the Victorian era. In Victorian England, families and friends would gather around on Christmas eve and tell each other spooky stories of ghosts and the supernatural. The tradition had roots even older stretching back hundreds of years to folk traditions of telling ghost stories in the winter as a way to pass the evenings. It was thought that winter, being dark and cold, was the best season for ghost stories.

It’s not surprising that Victorians would include the practice of ghost stories in their Christmas celebrations given that era’s fascination with and culture surrounding darker topics such as death, including elaborate mourning etiquette, death photography, and more. (A topic for another day, perhaps, but you can read more here.)

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Why the writers of the 1963 song decided to include the then relatively defunct tradition is uncertain. But the song itself has become a traditional part of Christmas and can be heard throughout the season, both the original and its many cover versions. The song’s original version is regularly included in top 10 lists of the most popular Christmas songs.

Read more about Victorian Christmas traditions below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml

https://listverse.com/2016/12/23/10-strange-christmas-traditions-from-the-victorian-era/

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/plea-resurrect-christmas-tradition-telling-ghost-stories-180967553/

#MusicMonday: “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono

“So this is Christmas and what have you done? Another year over, a new one just begun… A very merry Christmas and a happy new year, let’s hope it’s a good one without any fear.”

Happy_Xmas_(War_is_Over)“Happy Xmas (War is Over)” (1971) is a Christmas song by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, but it is also a protest song. Lennon and Ono made music and led activism promoting peace and condemning the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 70s and their Christmas song was no different.

Specifically, “Happy Xmas” promoted personal accountability and empowerment to stop the war in Vietnam with lines like “war is over if you want it” and “so this is Christmas and what have you done?” and “Let’s stop all the fight.”

The song shared the same message as a billboard campaign that Lennon and Ono put together in December of 1969, 2 years before the song’s release. They had billboards put up in major cities all over the world that read, “”WAR IS OVER! If You Want It – Happy Christmas from John & Yoko.”

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In the opening, whispered lines of the song Yoko wishes her daughter (from a previous marriage) Kyoko a happy Christmas followed by John doing the same to his son (from his previous marriage) Julian. The couple’s son Sean had not been born yet.

The song was written and recorded in New York City and the children’s voices featured on the song are from the Harlem Community Choir.

The song has been extensively covered over the years including by Sarah McLachlan, The Fray, Neil Diamond, Celine Dion, and many others.

The song was not an immediate hit, but has come to be a Christmas classic that invokes introspection and a renewed call for peace.

Full lyrics:

(Happy Christmas, Kyoko
Happy Christmas, Julian)

So this is Christmas
And what have you done?
Another year over
And a new one just begun

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear ones
The old and the young

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
For weak and for strong (If you want it)
For rich and the poor ones (War is over!)
The road is so long (Now!)

And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
For black and for white (If you want it)
For yellow and red ones (War is over!)
Let’s stop all the fight (Now!)

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

And so this is Christmas (War is over!)
And what have we done? (If you want it)
Another year over (War is over!)
And a new one just begun (Now!)
And so happy Christmas (War is over!)
We hope you have fun (If you want it)
The near and the dear ones (War is over!)
The old and the young (Now!)

A very Merry Christmas
And a happy New Year
Let’s hope it’s a good one
Without any fear

War is over, if you want it
War is over, now!

Happy Christmas
Happy Christmas, Christmas
Happy Christmas, Christmas

#MusicMonday- “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen

__5af63d3fd1f2dMy husband and I went to see the new Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody this weekend. I have long loved the band Queen and found Mercury’s life story interesting so I was excited to see the film, which was very good overall, even though parts of it were historically inaccurate. When the real story is so interesting, I don’t understand why movies still feel the need to heighten the drama by changing timelines or exaggerating conflict…, but I don’t want to spoiler the film, so for now I will just let it inspire today’s music Monday and I will write a more in depth review for later when more people have had a chance to watch it. So, no spoilers below, promise, unless you know absolutely nothing about Freddie Mercury already.

Most people are familiar with the song Bohemian Rhapsody (1975). Written by the band’s lead singer Freddie Mercury, the song is part rock ballad, part mock opera, part gibberish? I wish I could tell you that as a historian I had cracked the code and could tell you exactly what the song is about, but it would be the height of hubris to claim I had a better interpretation than all of those who have been trying to figure it out for 43 years.

I used to think parts of it were references to Mercury’s HIV diagnosis; however, it would be 12 more years after he wrote Bohemian Rhapsody before he received that diagnosis. Many believe the song is a veiled reference to Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, as he came to terms with being gay. On the surface the song seemingly tells the story of a “poor boy” on trial for killing someone. Mercury himself never confirmed the meaning of the song, telling listeners to make out what it meant to them.

The song’s operatic section (the part that sounds the most like gibberish) actually uses real words and names taken from real operas and other sources. An article from BBC America offers a glossary of terms for the song which helps to sort it out a bit.

A quick glossary of terms: Scaramouche is a stock character from the Italian clown tradition commedia dell’arte. He’s a fool, but adept at getting himself out of trouble. A fandango is a Spanish flamenco dance. Galileo was a Florentine astronomer, the inclusion of whom may be a nod to noted stargazer Brian May [lead guitarist of Queen, had studied astrophysics]. Figaro is, of course, taken from Rossini’s opera The Barber of SevilleBismillah means “in the name of Allah” and is the first word in The Qu’ran, and “Mamma Mia!” is an Italian exclamation of incredulity or surprise, referring to the Virgin Mary.”

Rather than being inspired by history (though it was a bit through its use of the above allusions), the song itself is a piece of history. At the time it was recorded it was groundbreaking in many ways. It was recorded for the band’s 1975 album, A Night at the Opera and at the time of its release it was considered the most expensive single ever recorded. At 5 minutes and 55 seconds it was an improbable hit. Nonetheless it was wildly popular and a commercial success. It lacked a chorus, another factor that made it an unlikely hit. The song’s promotional video also blazed trails, taking the fledgling practice of video promotions to new heights and pioneering the age of MTV in which music videos became necessary for singles.

The song is considered by many to be one of the greatest rock songs of all time. Acclaimed for being innovative in its fusing of hard rock with operatic style music, the song has inspired people for decades. Its list of awards and accolades is expansive including being inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It topped the charts upon its release and again after Mercury’s death in 1991 when it was rereleased and when it was used in Wayne’s World.

It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them… “Bohemian Rhapsody” didn’t just come out of thin air. I did a bit of research although it was tongue-in-cheek and mock opera. Why not?

—Freddie Mercury

The complete video is below. Take Freddie Mercury’s advice and take a good, hard listen and see what the song means to you.

History in Song: “Take A Walk” by Passion Pit

This week’s #MusicMonday moves away from songs inspired by big, well-known historical events and takes a look at a song inspired by the songwriter’s own family history.

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“Take a Walk” was the first single off of Passion Pit’s (an indietronica band) album Gossamer (2012). The song tells what sounds like the story of one immigrant man and his family from arrival in the US through eventual financial success and then financial troubles. The songwriter and lead singer of Passion Pit Michael Angelakos (who is of Greek descent) says that each verse of the song is actually about a different family member, telling the story of his own family, particularly several generations of men of his family and how they have dealt with money.

The early lyrics of the song, though about a specific family, speak to the experiences of many immigrants to the United States. Later verses are a bit more specific and speak to the American Dream motif that some immigrants, but not most, were able to achieve. The song goes full circle though to financial trials that stemmed from chasing that American Dream too far. While reflecting on how his family has handled financial gain and strife, Angelakos also tells the story of their migration, assimilation, and change over time, telling what is ultimately an American story.

If you had to write a song about your family history what might it sound like?

Take a listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZX6Q-Bj_xg

Full lyrics below:

All these kinds of places
Make it seem like it’s been ages
But tomorrow some new buildings scrape the sky [progress]
I love this country dearly
I can feel the ladder clearly [progress and the American Dream ideal]
But never thought I’d be alone to try [happy to be in the US but missing family and his love]

Once I was outside Penn Station [in New York City, the port of entry of many immigrants]
Selling red and white carnations [starting out as a street vendor]
We were still alone
My wife and I
Before we married, saved my money
Brought my dear wife over
Now I want to bring my family state side [what some call chain migration, when one family member arrives, finds housing and employment and then helps others migrate as well; New York’s Ellis Island would often ask new migrants if they had employment or family in the US to sponsor them–they wanted to be sure new migrants wouldn’t become homeless or dependent on social aid.]

But off the boat they stayed a while
Then scattered cross the coast
Once a year I’ll see them for a week or so at most
I took a walk

Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

Practice isn’t perfect
With the market cuts and loss
I remind myself that times could be much worse
My wife won’t ask me questions
And there’s not so much to ask
And she’ll never flaunt around an empty purse

Once my mother-in-law came
Just to stay a couple nights
Then decided she would stay the rest of her life
I watch my little children, play some board game in the kitchen
And I sit and pray they never feel my strife

But then my partner called to say the pension funds were gone
He made some bad investments
Now the accounts are overdrawn

I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk

Honey it’s your son I think I borrowed just too much
We had taxes we had bills
We had a lifestyle to front
And tonight I swear I’ll come home
And we’ll make love like we’re young
And tomorrow you’ll cook dinner
For the neighbors and their kids
We can rip apart those socialists
And all their damn taxes
But see I am no criminal
I’m down on both bad knees
I’m just too much a coward
To admit when I’m in need

I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
Take a walk, oh-oh-oh
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
I took a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk
Take a walk, take a walk, take a walk