Archive for the ‘Media’ Category

My colleague James Fair and I did a short documentary piece on the veteran hip-hop artist Tame One for Wax Poetics TV. Tame talks about his experience as an independent artist and the politics of dealing with major labels back in the ’90s.

Click here to read the story that goes with it.

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On a cool October night in 2005, my close friend Mike told me that our friend Orlando was dead.

We were standing in our narrow hallway in Flatbush, Brooklyn, and I could sense his effort to keep his voice steady. In that awkwardly fixed tone, Mike told me that Orlando had died of a brain aneurysm the previous morning after spending six days in a coma. He had just received an email from Orlando’s manager and close friend in Chile, which had been sent from Orlando’s account. The sudden news explained why Orlando had mysteriously disappeared that summer — a question that had remained in the back of my mind ever since.

All I really knew about his past was that he came from Chile and grew up playing the drums. I didn’t know what to say to Mike at the time though. I knew words wouldn’t help, so I asked him if I could read the email. The sender had written that she was able to speak to Orlando the night before he passed away.

“I know you were a good friend to him and we all thank you for that, he told me those were his best years of his life,” her message read. “Orlando is buried in ‘Cementerio do Sao Paulo’ under the grave of Orlando Batista Dariabolo.”

She also mentioned that he had left behind an apartment in Rio de Janeiro for Mike and our friend Brian to share. The two of them had been much closer to Orlando than I. They had all gone to the same college, shared an apartment in West Philadelphia, and spent most of their time together making music and trading bizarre stories.

For me, hearing about the loss of a talented musician who treated friends and strangers with equal sincerity left an indescribable feeling between frustration and sorrow. Seeing my closest friends lose their closest friend simply hurt.

What intensified that feeling was that no one knew whom to reach out to in order to find out more about Orlando’s death. Mike repeatedly called his phone and sent replies to the email, but he never received a response. Other friends who had received similar emails sent replies to the sender as well, but without any luck.

Everyone wanted the chance to say goodbye, or at least find closure in the sudden loss of a close companion.

So a few weeks after the news of his death, 50 or so of Orlando’s friends, colleagues and former professors held a memorial service for him at Drexel University. Some told stories and showed videos of Orlando in his most candid moments. Others quietly shed tears. The feeling shared by everyone was permanent loss.

At a dimly lit bar in Queens a year later, Mike, Brian and I touched glasses to memories of Orlando at his best: a lovable weirdo who once claimed “Who’s the Boss?” was the best TV show ever. No one outwardly mentioned his absence, but the feeling hung over us like a broken light fixture until we finally walked out — with Mike and Brian for days after.

Then, nearly three years after the news of his death, I got the real news: Orlando wasn’t dead. I found out in the summer of 2008, while Mike and I were visiting Brian’s parents in New Jersey.

“Can I tell him?” Brian asked Mike in a hushed voice.

“I’ll tell him,” Mike replied as he anxiously pulled on his cigarette.

Mike had received a cryptic voice message from Orlando that week. In his message he told Mike that he was hiding out in Brazil, and asked that he avoid trying to contact him because it wasn’t safe.

Even though he had already heard the news, Brian looked completely stunned. I’m sure I did too.

After that night, random calls, emails, and Facebook requests gradually confirmed what Mike had told me. Orlando is alive and well. He’s even doing concerts in South America, according to his status updates. But none of us have seen him since his falsified death.

I recently contacted Orlando to let him know I was writing about his reemergence among dozens of friends and colleagues who believed he was dead. As we exchanged messages about his disappearance, he told me he had been kidnapped for reasons he couldn’t mention and that he had indeed fallen into a coma back in 2005.

“I don’t remember too much. My memory is all fucked up,” he told me.

According to several of Orlando’s friends and relatives from Chile, his illness was a reality, but none can vouch for his kidnapping or the obituary email that was sent. They all say that Orlando is living safely with his family in Copiapó.

“Well, he’s not dead,” his cousin, Julia Veronica Cruz Rojas, wrote to me. “He’s doing just fine actually.”

According to several of Orlando’s friends and colleagues from Philadelphia, Orlando occasionally spoke of people who were after him and his family. But there was never any proof of that. On both sides of the equator, no one can say that Orlando was ever in any real danger beyond his own ailments. His active Facebook page adds to that doubt.

What’s left is a lingering sense of bewilderment among those of us who were at his memorial service in 2005.

“It all seems blurry looking back,” said Felicia Wong, who had also lived with Orlando in Philadelphia. “Maybe that’s because it wasn’t real in the first place. But I do remember that he loved his friends, so I can’t imagine him consciously putting us through that and letting us believe it for so long. Even if it was a momentary lapse of reason.”

*****************

Orlando allegedly died for three years and then reappeared out the blue. It was if he had used death as a way to say farewell to his friends in the states.

When I found out that Orlando’s brain aneurysm was a facade, it took me a little while to make sense of it. But as the peculiarity wore off with time, what seemed as equally astounding as hearing about his reappearance was how he so casually resurrected himself online soon after — like nothing had ever happened.

For Facebook’s living users, it’s natural to overlook the countless ways the site resurfaces random photos and bits of information tied to its dead account holders. More often than not that realization takes the real death of a loved one.

Last summer my sister and her friends were impacted by the loss of their friend and neighbor Andre Donald, a sociable 36-year-old who loved to cook snapper and went by the nickname Squinty Don. At four in the morning on August 26th Andre slammed his Honda Accord into a government dump truck on the Brooklyn Bridge and died on impact. The news station WPIX reported his death within the hour.

I had talked to Andre for the first and last time a few weeks before his collision, and his death left me with a feeling similar to the one left by the news of Orlando’s. Except Andre’s death was no illusion and his Facebook page has become a virtual tombstone because of it. Dozens of friends and acquaintances continue to post semi-public R.I.P. messages that can be viewed by anyone else linked to Squinty Don on the social networking site. Some even post messages as if he were still alive, including Happy Birthday wishes.

“I think it’s nice,” my sister’s husband, Ben, told me. “It provides a place for people to go when they want to remember him.”

Appropriately though, if you weren’t friends with Squinty Don before he passed away, you no longer can be.

I asked my sister what she thought about his active Facebook page and she voiced a clear concern. She said she was worried that his page could also become a too-frequent reminder for those who were closest to him, especially if a living friend were to receive an automated message saying: You haven’t connected with Squinty Don in a while, say hello.

That was a shared concern among dozens of bloggers who were quick to point out a big oversight when Facebook began automatically generating suggestions for its users to reconnect with one another on October 23rd, 2009.

Three days later, Facebook’s head of security, Max Kelly, wrote a blog entry about how to “memorialize” an individual’s page, meaning the page will be taken out of public searches and no longer appear in a friend’s suggestion box. But nowhere in his post does Kelly mention a way to completely remove a dead user’s account. As of now, it takes a court-issued subpoena to do so.

A large part of that has to do with the value of those pages. Both Orlando Rojas and Squinty Don remain a benefit to the social networking site, dead or alive. Advertisers on Facebook are able to generate fresh revenue from the site’s dead account holders, so long as their pages continue to receive clicks. As Facebook’s users pass away, while the number of advertisers on the site grows, that ad-revenue also inevitably grows.

“If you have a friend or a family member whose profile should be memorialized, please contact us, so their memory can properly live on among their friends on Facebook,” Kelly wrote at the end of his blog post. “As time passes, the sting of losing someone you care about also fades but it never goes away.”

Even more so, the sting of losing someone can also become painfully numbing when it’s mechanically triggered… and then triggered again. That’s a ubiquitous story. Media has always found ways to keep death in limbo, too often sterilizing its natural affect on us. And even some of the best writers and reporters have failed to capture the most visceral feelings of those who have suddenly lost a loved one.

Florentina Williamson-Noble, a 22-year-old New York University graduate, lost her younger brother Andrew when he committed suicide on November 3rd, 2009. Andrew took his life by jumping from the 10th floor of the NYU Bobst Library that morning. At the time Florentina cursed the reporters who had exploited her brother’s death without considering her and her family’s grief.

“I realize it was a big story to them,” she said, “another NYU student commits suicide. But I was so angry with the journalists who had used his Facebook page to get information about him. Of course Facebook had no way of knowing, so we were fortunate that a friend of Andrew’s was able to go into his account and make it private. After that we had his page memorialized, which has been nice.”

Florentina’s mother, Esmeralda Williamson-Noble, has written about her family’s loss on several occasions. Since her son’s death, she has kept a personal a blog called Forever Invictus dedicated to Andrew, and has also written about his suicide for the Huffington Post.

In one piece titled ‘Michael Blosil — Death by Suicide’ Esmeralda wrote, “Although not famous, my son’s death was all over the internet and the media before we had even made it home from the hospital. A picture of Andrew, taken from his Facebook home page, was splattered everywhere.”

For those who have had the death of a loved one immortalized on the web, the best path is too avoid any stories or images that will arouse unwanted pain or numbness, Florentina told me one evening..

But despite the discomforting reality of it, there will always exist personal channels — under the surface of what we see, hear and read in the open — that allow us to stay connected to the loved ones no longer in our lives.

“I still send emails to my brother Andrew,” Florentina told me in a surprisingly peaceful voice. “It helps me feel close to him. Every once in a while I feel the need to ask him ‘Why did you do it?’ But most of the time I send him messages to let him know how much I miss him.”

Nothing has changed in the way we yearn to stay connected to those who have left us; what has changed is how we deal with that yearning. Florentina and her family, Mike and Brian, and those closest to Andre Donald can all attest to that.

—Damian Ghigliotty

Some might see the new age of professional business bloggers as a sign of progress — even if those bloggers rarely leave the office or pick up the phone to report and wear ironic t-shirts that say things like, “Trust me, I’m a reporter.”

If you ask me, it’s further proof that journalism is experiencing an identity crisis.

In early April, Dan Colarusso, the former New York Post Business editor and a longtime newspaper veteran, contacted me to see if I’d be interested in a summer internship at the high profile business and media blog, The Business Insider. The rate for graduates was $12 an hour and most of the work involved simple news aggregation. About as appealing as administrative paperwork to a scientist.

But I would have the chance to observe the much talked about banned equity analyst-turned-blogger Henry Blodget run his new media outfit, and I needed the work.

“This also might be a good place for you to catch up on the twitter phenomena,” Dan told me when I came to see him at the blog’s former office and confessed that I was a little out of touch with new media. “To be 100% honest, I don’t know if this is the future of journalism,” he said. “But I might not be the best judge of that.”

“My blackberry doesn’t even fully work,” he added with a comforting laugh.

“Mine doesn’t either,” I replied in all honesty. “Maybe it’s about time I got it up to speed.”

I was ambivalent about the idea of taking a step backwards in order to go forwards. But after seeing most of my freelance gigs disappear, along with the last few job scraps on Poynter and mediabistro, I contacted Dan a few weeks later to see if there were any openings left. He graciously invited me on board — signaling, again, his own ambivalence about the place — and told me I would join the Insider’s Clusterstock team starting early June.

When I walked into the new office space for my first day, I put my intern hat on and reminded myself that this was just another stepping stone into the age of post-postmodern journalism.

The first assignment the Clusterstock editor handed me was to cull through espn.com and a multitude of sports blogs to come up with the 10 worst franchises, in terms of payrolls and home-game attendance, for a multimedia slideshow. He also asked me to search for photos online to put over captions he would write. When I asked about the protocol for reusing published media, he told me not to worry about it, so long as the photos weren’t from a traceable publication — like say, ESPN.

That was the first sign that something was off.

The next morning the Clusterstock editor told me to go through a list of financial blogs and pitch three story ideas based on recent blog entries about larger news stories. After that, I was put to writing up email alerts, finding photos and doing other intern stuff.

A few hours later, he asked me to run through the financial blogs again and pitch three more story ideas.

“Sure, but why don’t you give me some feedback on the first three before I get started?” I asked, trying not to sound too unappreciative.

“That’s a good point,” he said, “I’ll do that in a little bit. Why don’t you just go through those blogs again in the meantime?”

Out of curiosity at that point, I stood up to get some water and glanced over at his computer screen. He had the blog’s heat map pulled up and was totaling the hits on his posts from that week.

That was the second sign.

Later that same afternoon two of the Silicon Alley Insider editors started to trade jokes and giggle over the New York Times’ horrendous earnings report for that quarter. I had heard similar jabs from bloggers several times before, but I finally realized then that bashing the Times has essentially become proof of one’s own merit in the world of blogging — even for those who rely on the Times for information.

I started culling through older Business Insider posts to see what the general consensus was.

One staff editor had actually written in a post titled “Newspapers Must Be Allowed to Fail”: “Watergate broke because an FBI agent, aka Deep Throat, didn’t like the way Nixon politicized the FBI — not because Woodward and Bernstein sleuthed it out. Source will always find the biggest megaphone they can to get their views out.”

In other words, reporters are dependent on their sources and the smart ones should just hang around the office and wait for a phone call (or a facebook message.)

I was scratching the surface of information so these guys could take cheap shots, grammatical errors included, and then go back to praising twitter. And then it hit me. Where’s Dan Colarusso? It was a fairly small office and I hadn’t seen him either day.

I asked out loud where he was, but all I got were blank looks and faint mumbles. So I waited about an hour and asked again. I never got a straight answer, but all that mattered at that point was that Dan certainly wasn’t there and, from the looks of it, he wasn’t coming back. “There goes any obligation I had to this place,” I said to myself.

That night, I emailed the Clusterstock editor and Business Insider’s publisher to let them know I would need to cut down on my hours to pursue freelance commitments elsewhere.

The publisher wrote me back the next day, informing me that under the circumstances it would be best if they released me from my internship.

“I understand,” I wrote back. “Please send my check for those two days to the following address.”

“Are you serious?” she responded a few minutes later.

“Yes. I came in and worked for those two days, and these are tough times.” I wrote.

Her next response read: “In two days you did not contribute productively to The Business Insider, rather you consumed resources while we trained you. You may send an invoice for those two days if you really think it appropriate.”

Wow. Their CEO Blodget gets $5 million in new funding for his blog — the third round of funding in its less than two-year existence — and I get a snippy insult when I ask for my $192 in return for aggregating news for the site.

Newspapers and magazines are dropping like flies, cable networks are just a few steps behind, and even the blogs that thrive off of their failures are feeling the unbearable lightness of being.

—Damian Ghigliotty

Vinyl Records

By Damian Ghigliotty

We used to call the best places and things gems because they were hard to find. Places and things you had to dig for.

Back in high school, my friends and I would spend a lot of our time (and lunch money) at the record store Fat Beats in the West Village. The biggest craze among us, as 16-year-old Brooklyn kids, was original, unfiltered underground hip-hop. It was the same music anyone can find on iTunes today, but back then — ’95-’99 for my graduating class — it was usually local, almost always on vinyl, and extremely sacred compared to what everyone else was listening to on the radio at that time. The only exceptions to that were Stretch & Bobbito, two well known voices on 89.9 FM (WKCR.) From 1 am to 5 am on Thursdays, they spun nothing but good hip-hop. And a lot of us stayed up to record it.

The albums and 12-inches that generated the biggest buzz across the five boroughs were quickest to disappear off the walls of Fat Beats, and one day my friend Frank and I became the envy of 20 other Brooklyn teenagers for having found two of the last original pressings of the debut Juggaknots LP (later re-released on CD as “Re:Release.”) I soon came to learn with a tinge of jealousy that Frank also owned an original pressing of the Company Flow “Funcrusher” EP, a fresh clear-green vinyl, and Frank later became a little jealous as well when he found out my sister’s friend had given me a copy of the original Slim Shady EP (though he won’t admit it now that Eminem’s beyond famous.) Funny enough, all three of those records had plain white sleeves, meaning no cover art and no pictures of what the artists looked like.

When the internet started to become a recognized place to find and buy independent music — I would argue around the beginning of 1997 — my friends and I discovered a website called Sandbox Automatic that gave us instant access to even harder to find records. It was a sudden maturity in our exposure to the whole subculture of hip-hop and we went to the site as much as we could to buy albums, EPs and singles that record shops like Fat Beats and Beat Street in Brooklyn didn’t carry. Less local, but just as precious and just as tangible when the packages finally came in the mail. Then suddenly, the next few years shot ahead something like this:

I quickly jumped into the first wave of the Napster phenomena in my first semester of college, went back to buying records when I came back to the city feeling guilty, had trouble getting those records onto my computer, awkwardly began buying CDs (blasphemy though it was), got tired of spending money on full-length CDs, quickly moved onto LimeWire, then SoulSeek, and occasionally iTunes, where my access to music — hip-hop, rock, soul and otherwise — thrives today.

Needless to say, most of the value we placed on underground hip-hop throughout high school has dissipated with the past. The physical records will always look and feel like gems in a way, especially caked in dust these days, but in 2008 that same music is ubiquitous and no longer hard to find. And that’s a disappointment at times. Not just due to personal nostalgia, but also due to a fear that when I have kids one day they won’t be able to cherish something the rest of the world hasn’t already seen or heard.

And here’s the much needed caveat I can’t seem to find a proper place for: I hold no resentment against the growth of the Internet and digital music (only a minor grudge), nor am I adverse to other forms of digital media, or digital networking sites like facebook, or blogging (though I hate the word.) But I do believe the ultimate downside to the digital era hasn’t been fully realized yet. Or I’m too reluctant to join an online chat group about it.

Since last year I’ve been a regular contributor to one of the world’s oldest hip-hop magazines, HHC, based out of London. As a personal formality of sorts, whenever I interview artists I ask them what they think of the Internet as a promotional tool. And almost every time I get the same response albeit in different form: “It’s great.”

“But don’t you feel like hip-hop is becoming oversaturated?” I ask.

“Nope, I stand out,” is the usual reply.

It’s arguable that iTunes and LimeWire have been good for most independent artists — since so few choose to stay underground. But something was lost in the transition to ubiquity and it wasn’t just the physical embodiment of music.

The Birth Of Apathy

Posted: April 16, 2007 in Education, History, Media, Music, Politics

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(Written in August, 2005) By Damian Ghigliotty

(Photo by Michael Hicks)

Robert Dylan Smith, a twenty-eight-year-old internet marketer living in Sacramento, epitomizes a body of America that continually shrugs its shoulders. Back in 1978, Smith’s parents choose the name Robert Dylan to instill a sense of righteousness in their future son—Janice in the event of a daughter. But, unlike his mother and father, who doggedly protested the Vietnam War, Smith has no interest in political activism. He sees himself as a regular, middle-class worker who likes to party with his friends, listen to Creed, and watch reality television. His one dream for the future, aside from buying a summer house on a marijuana grove, is to play as a quarterback for the Oakland Raiders. At the same time, Smith casually admits that he lost his ability to throw after graduating high school, and only dreams about playing again because in his mind: most dreams are fantasies, unless you’re that guy that married Britney Spears. Fantasies aside, Smith happily sees himself in the near future living a peaceful, everyday life on the West Coast, and vows to move to Vancouver if the situation in Iraq ever calls for a return of the draft.

Having been raised in a liberal household, Robert Smith is fully aware of the problems occurring in and beyond America, but refuses to ever protest out of a fear of legal repercussions. On the other hand, he argues that America’s youth as a whole have become too discouraged from making any real efforts, since a few drops in the bucket won’t ever amount to anything. Ultimately though, Smith has no problem openly admitting that if he really cared like his parents, he would be doing something to make a change.

It’s far too easy to blame young Americans like Smith alone for our country’s overall lack of political interest, unlike forty years ago when everyone was prepared for the next big revolution. The main reason: We still put our undivided trust in what we see, hear and read in the media, just like a lot of our parents did back then. While our country’s general attitude towards war, race, homosexuality, religion and politics has shifted from decade to decade, the fact that most of us are conditioned to act and think a specific way remains constant. The biggest difference between the 1960’s and now is how we’ve become so comfortable ignoring issues that don’t affect us directly.

On a daily basis, we’re being pressed by our schools and home communities to think about the world’s problems only a trivial amount. By our parents and extended families even less. The largest bulk of our awareness lies in the hands of MTV, AOL, FOX and every other media conglomerate that appeals to teenagers and young adults. Just as in the late sixties America’s youth were inspired by artists like Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin and the causes that gave birth to their views, today’s younger generations are being influenced by Nelly, Paris Hilton and Nike. This in turn transforms the idea of social activism into arbitrary, half-hearted movements; trends at best.

Why has Tibet been such a hot subject for young American activists over the past ten years? Not because the plight of the Tibetans is anymore important to the world than that of the Rwandans or Australia’s Aborigines, but because The Beastie Boys and other pop artists tell us that we need to urgently support Tibet first and foremost. And we follow without a second thought. Perhaps if they told us McDonalds was soon to be put out of business by the world’s mass vegan populations, the rest of our energy would go to saving America’s top fast food industry. The sad thing about such a thought is that regardless of how intelligent our country’s youth might be; intelligence becomes worthless when people choose not to think beyond their immediate surroundings. Just as dolphins are arguably as smart as humans, without the ability to organize movements on land, there’s only so much they can do to save the world. Or themselves.

One of the biggest social problems in America right now is that egotism and apathy are the ideas being spoken, sung, filmed and rapped about, and we gladly eat it up, because that’s what we’ve been trained to do for so long. Coincidentally, since 9/11 never have we been closer to the Red Scare of the fifties in terms of America struggling against an “invisible enemy.” Nor have we been closer to the Vietnam War in terms of giving up so many lives and resources to ensure “the world’s freedom.” Yet, instead of being urged by the media to educate ourselves and take a stance, we’re being pushed to look the other way. Or blindly join in on the fight.

Perhaps if the day to day programs we absorb began to spoon feed us the truth on what’s happening in the world– from Iraq, to Haiti, to Sudan, to North Korea –the average American wouldn’t be so indifferent. The underlying problem is that the average American isn’t properly trained in how to wade through channels, websites and pages of nonsense to get to the truth. And from 1965 to 2005, the amount of drivel in the media has increased tenfold. That’s why we now have large franchises producing Che Guevara shirts in Thailand, and people who consider themselves socially informed proudly wearing them. It’s also the reason why successful media icons can make dozens of statements about the condition of race and class in America, when poor teenagers are spending more money on Sean John jeans than they are on their weekly diets.

At the same time, it’s not our uninformed youth’s faults for following suit in these cases. Who can blame the ignorant when nobody’s making an effort to teach them? It’s also not our nation’s celebrities’ faults for getting paid to look informed, whether or not they truly are. The largest degree of fault lies with the media bigwigs, who determine what we watch, read, listen to, and purchase, for keeping us as distracted as possible in order to preserve their own interests. The rest lies with educated quasi-adults like Robert Smith, who are aware of the problem and do have the power to make a change, but repeatedly tell themselves that the bucket will always be half empty, no matter how many drops we add to it. If that were the case, all progress in America, from the Civil Rights Movement to Nixon’s eventual withdrawal from Vietnam, would be nothing but pure, random, dumb luck. And that’s pretty close to saying the generations before us accomplished no more than we do. Apathy then becomes complacency.

Until our country’s newest thinkers look at the bigger picture, apart from what writers, producers and celebrities tell us to fight for, activism will remain a raw commodity. Unfortunately, most commodities in the West sell at their appropriated values and the value of loose change is continually dropping. As much as major corporations would like to convince us that everything’s alright; that women in Somalia are partying harder than Courtney Love; that Palestine versus Israel isn’t nearly as important as Pepsi versus Coke; it’s our choice to buy into it all or question why we’ve become so apathetic.

[Robert Dylan Smith is a fictitious character]