Sierra Leone: elections and Frank Ocean

Sierra Leone is today holding Presidential and legislative elections.  There are nine Presidential candidates, including the incumbent Ernest Bai Koroma.  Sierra Leone is struggling to alleviate poverty in the wake of its brutal, diamond-fueled civil war which ended a decade ago.

While policy issues such as health (which Koroma is judged to have done well on) and employment (on which he has failed to make headway) have played a role in the lead up to the election, there are also significant ethnic loyalties at play.  Despite that, there has been little violence during the campaign period, and if the country can pull of a peaceful election that is seen to be fair it will be a significant achievement: this is Sierra Leone’s third election since the end of the war and history shows that new democracies are particularly vulnerable during their first twenty years.

In keeping with the theme of tenuous links this blog is pretty much built on, today’s elections seem good enough reason to post Frank Ocean’s song ‘Sierra Leone’.


I’ve just discovered Frank Ocean. He is a very timely reminder of how good R&B can be. He follows the path of Prince and Andre 3000: the songs are smooth, intelligent, often odd and almost always about sex.  ‘Sierra Leone’ is no exception on any of these counts.

While ‘Sierra Leone’ is apolitical, Frank Ocean did make a big political statement this year when he came out as bisexual.  This was considered a big deal because of the macho hip-hop world he inhabits.  Ocean’s music is not really hip-hop but he collaborates with many hip-hop artists, including Jay-Z and Kanye West.  His coming out was then something akin to an elite rugby or Australian rules football player coming out – the latter still has not happened, even among retirees (to my knowledge).

Below is the amazing ‘Pyramids’, a ten-minute epic with three distinct movements (including a closing guitar solo).  Elements of the production grate for me personally (such as the computerisation of his voice in parts) but it really doesn’t matter, it is just so good.




Elections in Niugini

Papua New Guinea (PNG) is in the middle of a general election.  PNG’s unique geography, and attendant ultra-diversity of languages and cultures, makes holding elections a gargantuan effort.  The unwieldy nature of PNG’s polls is reflected by the governor general’s recent extension of the voting period (which was already two weeks) in a number of provinces.  Of the over 10,000 polling booths in the country, roughly 1700 have little or no road access.  Security problems also contribute to the protraction of PNG’s polls.  Security forces from PNG, Australia and New Zealand have been deployed in an attempt to minimise election-related violence and can only be in so many places at once.

This year’s polls are complicated by the strange political circumstances that preceded them.  Incumbent Prime Minister Peter O’Neill was elected by the parliament last August after a number of its members declared that office vacant.  That declaration was a result of previous Prime Minister Michael Somare’s uncertain but bad health condition (his family had earlier made a retirement announcement on his behalf).

But Somare defied expectations by recovering and returning to PNG from his Singapore hospital bed.  He then made clear his preference to take back his position as PNG’s leader.  In December the Supreme Court ruled that his removal was unconstitutional.  In January a retrenched colonel attempted to reinstate him as PM.  The attempt failed and O’Neill retained the support of parliament.

Politics is very personal in PNG where individual personalities matter more than political parties.  Multi-member coalition governments and instability are the norm.  Seats tend to be fought on local issues so it is difficult to predict electoral outcomes or divine national-level policy debates.

Given the importance of personality in PNG’s politics, its not surprising that music is used as a campaign tool.  This photo was taken by a friend (thanks Doris) in Goroka.  It is an O’Neill campaign rally in the town’s central rugby field.  O’Neill shared the stage with musician Joe Kema.

Unlike PNG’s frenetic politics, its popular music is languid to the extreme.  I’d normally run a mile from anything termed ‘easy listening’ but in PNG it just works.  There’s a lot of reggae and daggy love songs with equally daggy midi backing  tracks.

Despite the fact that many have not yet even voted,  O’Neill has announced he will form a government.  While he can be confident he has retained his seat, only the party with the most seats will be invited to form a coalition, so his declaration is at best peremptory, at worst, inflammatory.  

Obama’s Campaign Mixtape

Soundtrack for this post: ‘I Got You’ by Wilco, ‘The Weight’ by Aretha Franklin and ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & the MGs.

*Note: from now on the above link will be to a playlist containing all soundtrack songs.

Obama’s campaign team is stepping things up.  Last week they published a 28-song 2012 campaign playlist on free online music library Spotify, a service which is not currently available outside the US and western Europe.  The complete list is at the bottom of this post.

As with the list of desired endorsements released a month ago (see this post), if nothing else, the playlist demonstrates admirable eclecticism.  There are a few correspondences with the endorsement list – No Doubt/Gwen Stefani, Wilco, James Taylor, Ricky Martin and Al Green – but Obama’s staffers have somewhat freer rein here given the likelihood of an individual declaring support is not a constraint (though an artist’s political persuasions aren’t completely irrelevant:  they can kick up stinks at their music being used without permission, particularly if they aren’t politically sympathetic).

Still, the Spotify list feels very much like a pragmatic collection of music, intended presumably to create rousing atmospheres at campaign events, rather than a collection of songs anyone would be passionate about (a true mixtape).  None of Obama’s favourite artists, as listed on his facebook page, are present.  (Those artists are Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Johann Sebastian Bach (cello suites) and The Fugees).

Obama’s home town Chicago is represented by the funk of Earth, Wind & Fire and soul group The Impressions.  The latter’s ‘Keep on Pushing’, an early civil rights movement anthem, is the only overtly political song on the list. The song was also a commercial success on its release in 1964.

Although light on explicitly political songs, there are a number of songs that easily lend themselves to political interpretation.  Two concern increasing elevation – Ledisi’s ‘Raise Up’ and Sugarland’s ‘Stand Up’ – and two more deal with physical movement – Raphael Saadiq’s wonderfully retro ‘Keep Marchin” and ‘Roll With the Changes’ by arena hair rockers REO Speedwagon.

Obama’s 2008 clarion calls hope and change are largely absent.  REO Speedwagon’s song is more about resilience than transformation.  Electric Light Orchestra introduce an upbeat aspirational note with ‘Mr Blue Sky’, but Obama as visionary for positive change is definitely not the story told with this playlist.

Obama’s cool youth credentials are covered (for me, unsatisfactorily) by Portland hand-clappers AgesandAges and Brits Arcade Fire.  Any cred earned is however more than spent by the proliferation of contemporary country on the list.  There’s Sugarland (twice), the Zac Brown Band, Dierks Bentley, Montgomery Gentry and Darius Rucker (also twice).  This selection really doesn’t do country any justice, and must surely have been compiled by someone with zero fondness for the genre.  And yes, Darius Rucker looks familiar because he was the lead singer of Hootie and the Blowfish.

The cringe-worthy patriotism award goes to Dierks Bentley’s ‘Home’.  There’s a nice and non-obvious Aretha Franklin: a cover of The Band’s ‘The Weight’.  A surprising number of non-American artists found their way into the list: Florence + the Machine, E.L.O. and Noah and the Whale (the UK), Arcade Fire (Canada) and progressive totems U2 (Ireland).

The Ricky Martin song is interesting.  For a start it’s from 2011 – who knew he was still releasing music?  It features Joss Stone and is pointedly mature.  The Latino dance anthem stylings he made his career on are wholly absent.  In fact Latino music, along with other major genres like hip-hop and hard rock, is conspicuous by its absence from this list.

It was only a matter of time before a politician misused Bruce Springsteen’s new single, ‘We Take Care of Our Own’, a cynical take on post-Katrina America’s priorities.  It is a bit surprising it happened this quickly.  Obama and Springsteen have a history, with the latter appearing at the former’s campaign events in 2008.  Interestingly, The Boss is not on Obama’s dream endorsement list for 2012.

We could give Obama’s aides the benefit of the doubt and surmise that the inclusion of ‘We Take Care of Our Own’ was due not to a misreading, but was instead a conscious ploy to give the list some edge, or even to appropriate the song’s anger and signal the incumbent’s sympathy for the Occupy movement.  Still, such a bitter song sticks out sorely on a list dominated by light, upbeat pop and safe Americana.


The list:

‘Different People’ by No Doubt
‘Got to Get You into My Life’ by Earth,Wind & Fire Experience feat. Al McKay Allstars (live)
‘Green Onions’ by Booker T. & the MG’s
‘I Got You’ by Wilco
‘Keep On Pushing’ by The Impressions
‘Love You I Do’ by Jennifer Hudson
‘No Nostalgia’ by AgesandAges
‘Raise Up’ by Ledisi
‘Stand Up’ by Sugarland
‘This’ by Darius Rucker
‘We Used to Wait’ by Arcade Fire
‘You’ve Got the Love’ by Florence + the Machine
‘Your Smiling Face’ by James Taylor
‘Roll With the Changes’ by REO Speedwagon
‘Keep Marchin” by Raphael Saadiq
‘Tonight’s the Kind of Night’ by Noah And The Whale
‘Keep Me in Mind’ by the Zac Brown Band
‘The Weight’ by Aretha Franklin
‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’ by U2
‘Home’ by Dierks Bentley
‘Everyday America’ by Sugarland
‘Learn to Live’ by Darius Rucker
‘Let’s Stay Together by Al Green
‘Mr Blue Sky’ by Electric Light Orchestra
‘My Town’ by Montgomery Gentry
‘The Best Thing About Me is You’ by Ricky Martin feat. Joss Stone
‘You Are The Best Thing’ by Ray LaMontagne
‘We Take Care of Our Own’ by Bruce Springsteen

Campaign music: 2012 Republican presidential hopefuls

Soundtrack for this post: ‘True Colors‘ by Cyndi Lauper and ‘American Girl‘ by Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers.

A couple of weeks ago an ad attacking Republican presidential nominee candidate Mitt Romney appeared.  Then, pretty quickly, all trace of it disappeared.  The ad was pulled because it used Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors‘ without her permission.  She accordingly had “her people” remove it.

Republicans can’t seem to keep their mitts off the works of unsympathetic musicians: last year Tom Petty had to get confrontational to avoid now pulled-out candidate Michele Bachmann using his ‘American Girl‘ during her campaign launch.  Do these people even vaguely listen to the lyrics?  (By people I mean the candidates’ aides).  ‘American Girl’ is…well, it’s not very patriotic.  It opens thus:

Well she was an American Girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinking that there was
A little more to life, somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to

Other artists are of course happy to have their work used by Republicans (or anyone else).  Would you vote for a man whose campaign theme song is from Kid Rock’s oeuvre?  If so, Romney’s your man.

More on the use of music in electoral campaigns in future posts.  I’ll even try to find some positive instances.  Other than perhaps Bill Clinton’s use of ‘Don’t Stop’ nothing’s springing to mind, so please do make suggestions.

Obama’s Dream Endorsements

Soundtrack for this post: ‘How Can You Mend a Broken Heart‘ by Al Green, ‘The Seed (2.0)‘ by The Roots ft. Cody ChesnuTT, ‘Pretty Noose‘ by Soundgarden

According to a story broken by The Tennessean a couple of days ago, Obama (or his staff) aims to count around 40 musicians or bands among his declared supporters for re-election later this year.

My first thought on seeing the list was that it had to be bogus.  For one, I haven’t even heard of a good portion of the artists (Sara Bareilles, Bruce Hornsby, Jewel Kilcher, to name just a few).  Secondly, the majority of those I have heard of seem like odd choices, not just because of questionable musical merit (Train?  The guy from Maroon 5?  Really?) but also questionable relevance.  Surely Gwen Stefani, the Counting Crows and Ricky Martin are well past their heydays?  And people who still care about Jack Johnson were never going to vote Republican were they?

These sources for skepticism can however be relatively easily accounted for.  Coming as I do from a country with compulsory voting, it is easy to forget the utility of tools (sorry Jack) for mobilising naturally sympathetic but not necessarily motivated vote sources.  The fact I’m not American could also help explain the apparent abstruseness of the list.  Genres like country and contemporary soul don’t have nearly as much extra-US penetration as hip hop, pop and rock.

There’s some ambiguity about the status of the list which could also explain some of the more esoteric inclusions.  Although described as a wish list, it is clearly a practical document rather than an intellectual exercise.  As such it is constrained by reality: it appears most inclusions have agreed to be on board for Obama 2012, or can be reasonably expected to be so.  So while we could all probably agree we’d prefer Lupe Fiasco over B.O.B. or Cat Power over Regina Spektor, that’s not really the point.

One way in which the list certainly does conform with what you would expect to come from a campaign team is that it attempts to cover all bases.  There’s hip-hop with cred (Jay-Z), hip-hop without cred (B.O.B.), hip hop turned pop (Fergie and from the Black Eyed Peas), R&B (Chrisette Michele and Alicia Keys), contemporary soul (India Arie and John Legend), blues (Robert Cray), country (Lady Antebellum and The Band Perry), alt-country (Wilco), hard rock (Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell), indie (Vampire Weekend), stuff for the oldies with and without a real interest in music (James Taylor and Josh Groban respectively), music for particularly idiotic tweens (Jonas Brothers), Latin pop (Marc Anthony), show music (Bette Midler and Audra McDonald) and, of course, a Hindi language a cappella group from Pennsylvannia (Penn Masala).

So a broad range of tastes is covered, major ethnicities ticked off, and Ricky introduces some balance, sexual orientation-wise.

The full list is available here.

%d bloggers like this: