Wednesday, January 23, 2008

BMI and ASCAP are cum-sucking pigs

Right now I'm at the open mic at Inside the Bungalow in Mesa, Arizona. My fellow musicians and I have just been informed that next week will be the last open mic here. They've been paying protection money (aka licensing fees) to BMI for the last ten years but they missed this year's payment. As a result they must cease and desist and pay a $700 fine, even if they pay their bill and explicitly prohibit musicians from playing licensed cover songs from now on.

Last month I found that every live music coffeehouse in San Francisco has been similarly threatened and harrassed by BMI and/or ASCAP in the past year. They've all either shut down their open mics or banned cover songs. Now the snakes are slithering into the Phoenix area. It's likely that they'll put the chill on every open mic scene in the country within the next year or two.

I'm all for encouraging originality, but not this way. This kind of crackdown is like record companies prosecuting college students for downloading songs for free from the internet or lawyers harrassing day care centers for painting pictures of Mickey Mouse on the walls without paying off Disney. The musicians who write these songs make crumbs while weasels in suits walk away with most of the dough. It's greedy, mean, and ultimately self-destructive. No one's making money off these performances, but the performing rights organizations are getting free publicity for their songs every time some kid butchers Brown Eyed Girl in front of ten other musicians. They're not gaining anything by bullying the little guys. They're destroying an important part of our culture for a miniscule amount of cash.

BMI's corporate headquarters is at 320 West 57th Street, New York. I encourage everyone who finds themselves in or near The Big Apple to stand in front of their office and play some of the 6.5 million songs in their catalog. Open your guitar case and keep the change people throw at you. Do it in groups. Do it on an ongoing basis. Let's make it a new community tradition. I'll join you the next time I'm in town.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Japanese-American concentration camps

I used to teach Japanese at a high school in Santa Cruz. When checking out Japan-themed videos at the public library to use for class, I stumbled upon some videos about the concentration camps (or "internment camps" in the official parlance) into which all West Coast Japanese Americans were herded. I decided to show some of these to my students.
One video was about a handful of men who challenged their detention in court and lost, only to have their children revive the case forty years later and win. Other videos discussed the racial tensions at the time, the prejudice against not only Japanese Americans but all Asians living here, the hysterical propaganda films made by the government, and the obvious contradictions in our policies toward our fellow Americans who immigrated from Japan for the same reasons as those who came from anywhere else: for a better life than the one they left behind. Almost all of them were American citizens and most of them had been born here. Only the Japanese from the west coast were subject to this order, about 110,000 people. The Japanese of Hawaii, which had already been attacked, were not included in the internment even though they made up about a third of the population there. There was not one single instance of the much-feared sabotage by Japanese Americans that was used to justify their imprisonment. Many families found their houses occupied by white families when they tried to go back home after the war. One man was pulled out of his hospital bed in San Francisco while recovering from a gall bladder operation and sent to a concentration camp because his ethnicity made him threat to the United States.

A few days after I showed these videos, all sorts of info about the subject flowed into my life from many directions. The parents of a student who wasn't in my class gave me some posters ordering "all persons of Japanese ancestry" of Santa Cruz County to report to the local Veterans Hall in Watsonville for their confinement. I put the posters on the door and wall of my classroom. I found books written by people who had lived through the camps, including one by a Japanese Canadian woman who was imprisoned as a teenager along with 22,000 other people in British Columbia. One of the administrators showed me a clipping from a local paper, the Pajaro Valley Times or something like that, of a concentration camp survivor who goes around to area schools speaking about his experiences in the camps. We invited him to talk to our student body.

Mas Hashimoto was born in Watsonville to a farming family. He was as American as anyone else born here. He'd never even visited Japan until years after the war. He was sent to prison when he was SIX for the crime of being of Japanese descent. The family had one week to close up shop, get rid of most of their possessions (there wasn't much that they were allowed to take with them), and uproot themselves completely.
From his green, fertile, temperate, oceanside farm town he and his family were sent to the desert in Gila, Arizona. They lived in shacks that were still under construction upon their arrival. No heat, no privacy. He had to check his bed for scorpions before going to sleep at night. They had to rebuild their lives from scratch with no resources but their own ingenuity and a few gifts from friends on the outside, behind barbed wire and under the eyes of soldiers manning machine guns in watchtowers. They built their own schools, had no books for some time, formed a baseball league, held dances, married, had children, and buried their dead. His brother died there at the age of fourteen.
About two years into the internment the government offered its prisoners a chance to show their loyalty to their country by joining the military and fighting against the Japanese empire. Some men took the opportunity gladly while others were so disgusted by the treatment they had received that they preferred to remain in prison.
Mr. Hashimoto brought copies of the tags that the internees had to wear on their way to the camps and handed them out to the students. They had the locations of each camp printed on them for relevant authorities to mark so that they knew where to send their human cargo from the central processing facility in Oakland. He showed slides of pictures of his family before, during, and after the internment and images of the camps. While they certainly didn't compare to the Nazi death camps of the same era, they were nevertheless horrid places created out of the ignorance and xenophobia that have always been so prominent in our culture.
He told the students that one of the reasons he gives these presentations is that since 9/11 he sees something similar happening to Arab and Muslim Americans, people who are being victimized by the fears of their fellow Americans and made to suffer guilt by association. He doesn't want to see another group of people endure what he went through.
The students were deeply impressed by Mr. Hashimoto's presentation. They were full of questions for him. Afterward some of them told me that he was the best guest speaker we'd brought in all year.

I wish I'd been taught about this during my high school years. I knew that the camps existed, but that was about it. Regardless of how one feels about the necessity of imprisoning thousands of families for the sake of national security, every American should know the details of this period in our history from the point of view of those who experienced it first-hand.