I’m going to start this post off with a statement that, in certain rock-n-roll circles, might be labeled as blasphemous: “Maggie’s Farm,” by Rage Against the Machine, is the single greatest cover song of all-time.
Bold, I know.
I understand why other rock-and/or-rollers might disagree. It could easily be argued that “Maggie’s Farm” is not even the greatest Bob Dylancover of all time, let alone the greatest cover. Rolling Stone magazine essentially made that argument itself when it snubbed the song in their top-10 list of Dylan covers—a list that understandably culminated with Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower.” But while that and other songs on the list would admittedly check more boxes in any attempt at objective analysis, good music is a subjective phenomenon, and there’s still no other cover that I’d rather hear blasting through the speakers of my Ford Fiesta than Rage’s version of “Maggie’s Farm.”
Rage is the perfect band for Songs w/ Substance. Their music oozes substance—radical substance—and “Maggie’s Farm” is no exception. The song is the last track on their 2000 Renegades album, an all-covers release in which the band pays homage to the musical revolutionaries that came before them, refurbishing some old classics in their unique thrash-metal style. It shouldn’t be surprising that a “renegade” like Bob Dylan made the cut.
There are several interpretations of the lyrics that Dylan wrote for “Maggie’s Farm.” Some think that is a personal narrative about Dylan’s gripe with the record industry. Others say it’s a more generic hymn about the evils of capitalistic exploitation. But no matter who or what Dylan was trying to take on with these lyrics, there’s no doubt that the song carries a message of empowerment. Be it a struggling musician, a factory laborer, or a campesino on a hacienda, this song is an anthem for the downtrodden who have the courage to rise up, break free from their chains, tell their boss to “get fucked,” and defiantly refuse to take anymore of his shit.
It’s wild to think that this sound was so upsetting to people back in the day, especially when listening to Rage’s 21st century interpretation. But if you believe the rock historians, it’s that moment that made groups like Rage Against the Machine possible. When Bob Dylan plugged his guitar into that amplifier, he fused the heart of folk music with the sound of rock. He turned the electric guitar into a vehicle that could deliver a political message. He made it cool for rock-n-roll to say something.
That’s why I’ll stand by my claim of “Maggie’s Farm” by Rage Against the Machine as the greatest cover song of all-time. It may not get the radio play or written acclaim of a Jimi Hendrix or a Guns N’ Roses, but the song has undeniable substance. It’s got the history, it’s got the message, and it’s got a crescendo that will knock your fucking socks off. That’s the stuff that counts. Rage on.
Songs w/ Substance is a running segment that explores songs that say something meaningful about the world and the human beings that inhabit it. Aside from being good music, these songs provide powerful social commentary about the human experience—about what it means to live and love and laugh and die on this planet. These write-ups represent my reflections on those lyrics. If you would like to share your own, please do so in the comments section below.
“When I am dead—I say it that way because from the things I know, I do not expect to live long enough to read this book in its finished form—I want you to just watch and see if I’m not right in what I say: that the white man, in his press, is going to identify me with “hate.”
He will make use of me dead, as he has made use of me alive, as a convenient symbol of “hatred”—and that will help him to escape facing the truth that all I have been doing is holding up a mirror to reflect, to show, the history of unspeakable crimes that his race has committed against my race.”
* * * * *
I just recently finished reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The book was published in 1965, the same year in which Malcolm X was violently gunned-down by his former allies. At times, the book feels like it was published yesterday.
That’s because over 50 years removed from its groundbreaking publication, The Autobiography of Malcolm X is still incredibly, and perhaps depressingly, relevant. Its discussion of race unveils some painful truths about what it means to be born black, and white, in the United States of America—truths that still hold true to this day.
Especially amongst white Americans, X is commonly remembered as the anti-King. King was a southern Baptist, while X was a Black Muslim. King said to “turn the other cheek,” while X said to “send him to the cemetery.” King had a dream, while X saw a delusion. King had white allies, while X only saw “white devils.”
History has definitely treated Martin King Luther more kindly. He is the face of the Civil Rights Movement and unanimously venerated today by black and white people alike as an America hero of the highest degree. I concur with that sentiment, but after reading X’s autobiography—the story of Malcolm X in his own words—part of me feels that the things that X was saying were more powerful and poignant than any speech that Martin Luther King ever made. King was a man of his time, but X was ahead of his, and perhaps 50 years from now, history will reflect that.
The Civil Rights Movement would not have happened with X as its leader. King was palatable to the white American public in a way that X could never be. King not only shared the religion of the white masses, he was a minister. He used the very verses that white Christians knew so well to convince them that the just treatment of the black man was the Christian thing to do. His deeply held religious convictions also helped to inform his philosophy of non-violence—a philosophy that also had immense strategic wherewithal. Pictures of violent white cops brutalizing peaceful black protestors had an enormous impact on the white American psyche, and made the dehumanization of the latter much more difficult in the face of the actions of the former. What is more, King insisted on integration—on black people and white people living together peacefully, in harmony, as one. King’s timeless “I Have a Dream” speech is based on this very sentiment, and is credited with having helped to create a society where black and white people do indeed “work together, pray together, [and] struggle together,” at least up to a certain point.
X, on the other hand, was a staunch segregationist. He had no desire to live next to the white man who had beaten and brutalized his people for hundreds of years—he just wanted an end to the beatings and the brutalization. He did not want to work with the white man either. He saw no sense or honorability in trying to convince the white man to bestow rights upon blacks. Respect and independence was something that the black man had to earn for himself, no matter what the white man had to say about it. In achieving those ends, X did not advocate for violence, but unlike King, he also did not advocate against it. “I don’t even call it violence when it’s in self-defense,” X once said, “I call it intelligence.”
Even though X was, first and foremost, an advocate for black rights, he was also one of the most prominent critics of the Civil Rights Movement, at least the movement as we think of it today. He was highly skeptical of the methods and tactics used by the more prominent civil rights “leaders” (X’s quotations, not mine), and was even more skeptical of the movement’s so called achievements. To this day, Americans celebrate things like the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act as historic moments in the fight for racial equality—tangible political achievements that finally fulfilled the promised ideals of “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for every American regardless of race. But like Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence, the language in said legislation often rang hollow. The words may have been pretty, but they failed to reflect themselves in a racial reality that never stopped being ugly. State sanctioned segregation may have come to an end, but that did little to increase the quality of black neighborhoods and black schools. Discriminatory voting laws may have been outlawed (sort of), but the legislators and legislation that followed have done little to address the plight of a lot of black Americans.
X didn’t need the hindsight that I am using to make the above observations—he used foresight. He knew that inspirational rhetoric and symbolic milestones would only go so far in creating meaningful change in the lives of black Americans. He may have thought King’s ends and means to be just and well-intentioned, but as X once said of his fellow civil rights advocate, “If you don’t think that he’s walking on the right road, I’m quite sure that you don’t agree that he’ll get to the right place.”
I have tremendous respect for Malcolm X and tremendous regard for the worldview that he projected, but I also think that one of the most powerful aspects of this book is that X’s flaws were on full display. Even as someone who is enamored by history’s radical revolutionaries, there were plenty of things about X that I did not like, and plenty of things that X said that I did not agree with. But like this essay, this book is not an effort to martyrize or romanticize X the myth. It’s an honest, unapologetic portrayal of X the man.
In history, we often pretend that people don’t change. We assign them with static characteristics, as if they come into this world with certain inalterable traits that they consistently exhibit throughout their lives. The Autobiography of Malcolm X challenges this notion by showing us X’s evolution—not just from youth to adulthood, but the changes that took place in X, both personally and philosophically, in his never-ending quest to make sense of the world around him. In his final months, X had become more willing to work with the white man and more warm to the idea of an integrated society. He had recognized and admitted that some of his earlier views had some major flaws that failed to reflect the complexity of the larger world. He even broke with the Black Muslims with whom he had burst onto the national scene, and began his own pursuit of justice and truth in light of the new realities he had discovered.
It goes without saying that X’s words should not be mistaken as the truth. I don’t think that there even is such a thing to find when surfing the subjective waves of race and history. That being said, I am confidant that everything that X expresses in those 400-plus pages is undoubtedly his truth. X always told it like he saw it, even though the way that he saw it changed over time. He was never one to sugarcoat anything, and never held anything back no matter how hurtful or offensive his words might be. The truth itself is oftentimes hurtful and offensive, and if X had to hurt you or offend you in order to tell you that truth, than that was just what had to be done.
In telling his truths, X oftentimes alters our own. Over 50 years removed from his departure from this world, X’s words still challenge many of the beliefs that we as a nation collectively hold about things like race and history and what it means to be an American. His words can be as discomforting as they are empowering, as demoralizing as they are inspiring, but regardless of message or tone, they are always radical, raw, and honest.
That’s what makes X’s voice so worthy of inclusion in the conversations that we are currently having. That’s what makes his words so insightful in our continued search to find solutions to the racial unrest that still plagues our nation. And that’s what makes his book such an important read for whites, and blacks, and anyone else who has skin in the game of race relations in the United States today. As I said before, I don’t think that X was right about everything, and surely there are some things that I think he was blatantly wrong about. But even though, at the end of the book, I remained unconvinced that the entirety of X’s upside down worldview was true, I still think that I’m a wiser person for at least taking the time to consider it.
I just recently finished binge watching the first five episodes of HBO’s new series “The Night Of,” a riveting story about an American-born Pakistani who finds himself wrapped up in a murder case in which he is the lead suspect. If you’re not watching this series, you should be. It’s fucking great, not only for its story-telling, but for some of the HBO-esque social commentary it makes in its portrayal of things like our criminal “justice” system, prison culture, and life in America as a Muslim.
That’s why I was surprised to find this article as I scoured the web for some write-ups regarding the show’s most recent developments. As the title suggests, NY Daily News writer, Katherine Pushkar, has some beef with the show’s portrayal of black people, specifically, the array of harmful racial stereotypes that she believes the show reinforces. She’s got some solid evidence to back up her point.
The vast majority of the black actors in “The Night Of” do indeed portray characters that are not cast in a particularly positive light. As Pushkar points out, most of them play inmates, some of them play “beat” cops—albeit none central to the main storyline—and those who remain play supporting roles to white defense attorney John Stone, serving more to establish Stone’s “idiosyncratic” character than their own. But what seems to have pushed Pushkar over the edge was the multiple appearances of a “big black dick” on a deceased black body during a scene in the series’ most recent episode—a scene that she describes as either “willfully or provocatively obtuse.”
I get where Pushkar is coming from. American television has a rich history of promoting harmful racial stereotypes that do real social damage. People from my generation and older all grew up watching cartoons with cringe-worthy portrayals of people of color, and my own guilty pleasure of professional wrestling still comes to mind when I think of TV shows that typecast non-white people as characters that will match the shade of their skin. Both TV and Hollywood also have a rich history of casting people of color to play supporting roles to white protagonists, even when the story is supposed to be about the people from that more colorful group. Whether its Abraham Lincoln emancipating the slaves, Kevin Costner dancing with wolves, Michelle Pfeiffer teaching dangerous minds, or a Marine-operated Avatar helping to save an alien, humanoid tribe, stories that are ostensibly about the liberation, empowerment, and/or struggle of a particular non-white ethnic group are constantly being undermined by the subliminal message that those groups needed a white savior to lead the way.
But to me, HBO’s “The Night Of” feels different than the examples mentioned above. The series does reinforce certain harmful stereotypes about black people—that they live in ghettos, that they commit crimes, that they go to prison…However, while those stereotypes may indeed be harmful, they are also mostly true.
Please do not misinterpret what I am trying to say here. I am not trying to say that black people are somehow genetically predisposed to lack 21st century job skills or participate in violent criminal behavior. What I am trying to say, however, is that the history and prevalence of systemic racism in our country has created a society in which black people are much more likely to be poor and are much more likely to go to prison, not because of any inherent ineptitude, but because of major race-based societal inequities that have never been addressed.
Also, while the show does allocate much of its social commentary to other American-born social illnesses like Islamophobia and our broken criminal justice system, racism does takes some direct hits as well. I specifically recall one courtroom scene where a black man, having just received a less-than lenient sentence, incredulously asks the judge why he can’t receive a ruling similar to the white Jewish guy that preceded him. “You want Jew time? Do a Jew crime!” responds the judge matter-of-factly, following it up with a deliberate, “Next.”
To any viewer paying attention, that “next” should help to explain the increased level of melanin present at Riker’s Island, and the relative lack of criminals whose collars would be far from the whitest thing about them. Perhaps not all viewers are thinking about these sorts of things while watching the show, but HBO has never been one to dumb it down. They leave that to network television.
Could the show have casted a black protagonist, or at the very least, a black judge or a black lawyer? Sure. I don’t see why not. There are, after all, black people occupying all sorts of positions of power and prestige in every corner of the country. But if you do it just to do it, what message are you really sending? Will casting a black judge reverse the racial bias inherent in our criminal justice system? Would the sprinkling in of more white inmates do anything to change the real-life racial imbalance at Riker’s and other urban detention centers? I think not, but perhaps the truth could.
The truth hurts. The truth sucks. But if we don’t know the truth, how are we supposed to act on it? Obscuring the truth only serves to postpone the problem—to infuse us with a false of sense of hope that we as a nation are making more progress towards racial equity than we actually are. “The Night Of” may reinforce harmful racial stereotypes, but it does so in the interest of confronting them—showing us the reality and hoping that it bothers us. I appreciate Pushkar’s sensitivity to things that are racially insensitive and her attempt to hold the makers of the show accountable. But in my opinion, she should be less concerned with whatever stereotypes “The Night Of” may be reinforcing and more concerned with the reality that they reflect. And as for “the big black dick” thing, I just saw a penis—a rare instance where, in my guilty, white, race-conscious mind, skin color didn’t even really occur to me. We don’t have to racialize everything, even if everything already is.
Taking on the man is hard. The man has the money. The man has the power. The man built the system, and therefore, has the system always working in his favor.
Taking on the man is like a card game in which you don’t know the rules, the deck is stacked against you, and your opponent has already been playing for years. You can increase your odds of winning by studying the rulebook, but the buy-in is pretty steep, and the man is playing with house money and house odds. Sometimes, it’s just easier to not play.
But on the rare occasions when you choose to take on the man and beat him at his own game, damn does it feel good. Damn does it feel right. And every now and then, when the stars are properly aligned, that actually does happen.
My girlfriend recently took on the man. Over the past year, she and her roommate have been locked in a battle with their former landlords—a company named Minneapolis Real Estate—over a $1,500 damage deposit that came back about $1,000 short.
If you’d like a more detailed account of the whole episode, you can read it here in the statement that I wrote for their recent court case, but basically all you need to know is that my girlfriend and her roommate got totally screwed. They attempted to dispute the damages, but each effort was met by a company stiff-arm. The company rejected the letter outlining the initial disputes, they regularly and purposefully ignored phone calls, they refused to participate in conflict resolution, and on the few occasions when the girls were able to corner someone into a conversation, they were treated with the utmost condescension and rudeness.
This case looked destined to end like the majority of cases likely end between relatively powerful landlords and their relatively powerless tenants. Renters, by nature, are usually not powerful people, and landlords, as property owning elites, are. But to the girls’ credit, they persevered. Every time they reached a dead end, they got back on the highway, pulled out the roadmap, and searched for an alternative route. And when they finally arrived at small claims court earlier this week, the results proved that they had indeed reached their desired destination.
The court awarded my girlfriend and her roommate with $2,780—nearly all of the $3,070 for which they filed suit. While the money will obviously be appreciated, both the girls will tell you that the most gratifying part of the experience was the satisfaction they gained from being validated—the affirmation that they were indeed being treated unjustly, and that justice, at least in this case, was going to be served.
I’m really happy for them, but I also unfortunately doubt that most like cases have similar endings. My girlfriend and her roommate were extraordinarily organized, having spent hours on the phone and computer exploring their options, saving and copying all relevant documentation, and even gaining entry into their old apartment in order to photograph the so called “damages.” Over a nearly 12-month period, the girls put in a lot of time and endured a significant amount of stress and frustration playing out a process that never guaranteed them anything for their efforts. It would have been very easy to just give up—to take the money they were originally afforded and chalk up the lost dollars to the inevitability of being screwed by the man every now and then. Luckily, they didn’t do that, and luckily, that didn’t happen.
The man isn’t always a landlord, nor is he always man. He can be a boss or a business owner, a police officer or a politician—any person or people in a position of power who use that power to do not-nice things to the people below them on society’s totem pole. Taking on the man can be a tall order—a task in which one must tread carefully and cautiously, maintaining a healthy dose of both optimism and realism. Hopefully this story can provide some of the former to those out there engaged in their own battles with the man—inspiring them along the way to hopefully winning their fights.
Of course, there’s no shame in having to give up and living to fight another day. Not everybody has the time and resources and knowhow to take the man on in every situation, and even when they do, the man will still probably win more often than not. That’s what makes him the man, after all. But know that the man doesn’t always win. The man has his kryptonite, and that kryptonite is justice. In cases where an injustice has been done, there are means for justice to be sought. The man still cuts the deck, and usually has an ace showing, but for those with a basic understanding of the rules, a decent hand, and a willingness to play the game, don’t count yourself out too quickly. You never know, you might get lucky.