Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Re-Arrange Me 'Til I'm Sane

Yesterday I made a big decision that I hope is going to affect my life for the better. I decided to quit my capoeira training. It feels like a break up. One that ended on good terms, but still sad.

Capoeira is an ancient Brazilian martial arts that I started practicing 6 months ago. I love it because its not only a martial art, it also combines elements of singing, dancing, acrobatics and martial discipline/culture -- and has an extremely rich history as well. It was used by slaves in Brazil under colonial times to defend themselves once they managed to escape from their masters. They were not allowed to practice martial arts so they disguised it as a dance activity, which is why capoeira looks so fluid and graceful.

Pretty much from the first moment I started capoeira I was tempted to quit. It was extremely demanding, physically, and at that time I was not exercising regularly. You need a massive amount of upper body strength (actually, all over strength but especially upper body) to do most of the moves, not to mention an unimaginable amount of flexibility, also in every part of your body. But I wanted to challenge myself not to be such a weakling and quit so fast, and wanted to prove to myself that I was capable of sticking to something and getting better at it even if:

  • I had to deal with the fact that I was the most unfit and out-of-shape person in class, and it REALLY showed as I lagged behind on everything,
  • I am the most clumsy and ungraceful person ever, and any coordinated physical activity is so not my forte (I made myself feel better by thinking, 'at least I can sing!')
  • My memory is so bad, so its really hard for me to memorize moves, even if they are extremely simple
  • I was really slow in class, and needed the teacher to explain something to me a billion times over several sessions,
  • The people I joined with progressed much faster than me, and I was progressing at snail pace rate.

It really was a personal challenge and a test to my personality. I didn't want to give up, even if I felt so awkward, out of place, and like the biggest failure in the world. I literally felt like I went to a random country, like Hungary or something, and everyone around me was speaking Hungarian, ignoring me, and I had absolutely no idea what's going on (weird simile, I know, but I swear it becomes relevant later). And believe me, my motivation was sometimes -5000 but I still didn't want to quit. Sometimes I wouldn't go to class most of the week because I felt so discouraged, and I used those breaks to glue back my shattered self-esteem and drag my ass to training, and I would keep marching on trying to prove to myself that I can do it. 

Eventually, little by little, I got better and progressed a LOT. I proved to myself that I could do something I never thought I could do :) I guess, I finally picked up some "Hungarian" words and was even starting to put together some sentences and have a comprehendible conversation. I could maybe kick someone's ass (and by someone I mean like, maybe a 10 year old kid, or something. I'm still a beginner!). I got a lot more flexible and built up my upper body strength (I used to be able to do 0 pushups and now I can do a few). I learned to play the instruments of capoeira, the berimbau (weird wooden instrument that looks like some kind of ancient fishing spear) and atabaque (drum) without shattering someone's eardrum. I had fun when fighting with my team-mates instead of just awkwardly standing there not knowing what to do (by the way, we don't make contact in training). 

However, the more I felt I was progressing, the more I felt like I was spreading myself thin. I was not focused on music anymore. Most of my day I'm at work, that's already 9 hours gone. I almost never had alone time because training took a lot of my time (it's only 2 hours three times a week, but trust me, every hour counts!). I had social commitments and I began to not enjoy them as much as I used to because I viewed them as obligations that cut into my personal "alone" time and my "music" time. My life was limited to work, capoeira, and like 3 people that are very close and important to me. I had no space for anything else, really. And trust me, things come up! Random errands, taking my cat to the vet, needing to pay bills, going to the bank, seeing family or friends that are coming from out of town... Life is all about the unexpected, and I had set up my life in a way where I had absolutely no room for that, my life was so routine and rigid. And the worst part of it all was that I wasn't working at all on my music and songwriting.

This crazy race against time was driving me insane from day 1 but I thought I would get used to it, or maybe I just need to organize my time better... but I realized that I'm not superwoman and I can't do it all, so I decided to quit because at the end of the day, my music is more important to me than anything, and that is my number one hobby, and I don't have space for another hobby right now. There are so many things we all wish we could do in our lives, but I guess we have to prioritize what is important to us given the free time we have. For me its the people that are close to me and my music.

It makes me really sad that I have to give up, but at least I'm not giving up because I feel like I suck at it. I at least discovered something about myself with capoeira, is that I can do anything I want if I keep sticking to it and trying hard enough! And I think that was a lesson that I really needed to learn. Maybe I'll have time for it in the future when songwriting becomes easier to me and I don't have to spend so much time writing a quarter of a line. Or if my job magically decides we should have 6 hour work days instead of 9 :) Also, I'm going to continue practicing what I know maintaining my fitness level that I acquired so far and improving it through running and body weight exercises, which are much more time efficient than training capoeira. And hopefully one day I will be able to train again, with improved fitness level so that I don't look like the silly and awkward one in class :)

I'll show you guys a video of capoeira. It's not the best representative of how group capoeira is, but at least it has the capoeira music and moves :) 


Wednesday, January 4, 2012

What Nicki Minaj Represents To Me

**WARNING: Please keep an open mind with this post. It is likely to offend some Nicki Minaj/Young Money fans :) **

I've always had a weird thing about Nicki Minaj. When she first came out with her feature on "Bed Rock", I got so excited that there was a female rapper on the scene. I instantly googled her and listened to tracks from her old, unreleased mixtapes. Although the subject matter was pretty much self-praise (which is a very popular topic in hiphop, and artists use these songs to show off their wordplay skills) I was relatively impressed with her flow, her lyrics and her unique sound. I was looking forward to hearing more from her.

I wasn't really impressed with what she came up with afterwards, except for her song "Moment 4 Life" with Drake, which I actually liked. I was also impressed that in her video with Mariah Carey "Up Out Of My Face", she looked cute and even sported a little belly and was still sexy with it. I was hoping she would be a celebrity who advocated a natural body image. But the more and more she blew up, the more and more my weird feelings about her intensified.

To me, good music is good music whether it's commercial or not. I never really understood why people complain about "commercial music" and about how music is gone to hell these days... until I noticed Nicki Minaj's path, and I realized, she is the embodiment of ALL of that is wrong with "commercial" music.

I must make a distinction though, that I'm not against "commercial music". Commercial just means you're making money out of your music. But someone like Nicki Minaj does not only make "commercial" music, she makes mass-populated, reach-to-everyone's-ear-whether-they-like-it-or-not kind of commercial music. Everyone knew who she was, from that little girl who copied her on YouTube to your grandma. And that's kind of the problem.

My friend @kilmastudios who owns the UAE-based record label Kilma Studios, has argued with me on this very same topic before, and he said "Artists should have the freedom to be creative, its not their responsibility what kind of effect their music has on others". Though he has a strong point, I disagreed with him. I think that if you are that famous, you have a responsibility on the impact your music has on the huge chunk of society that is listening to your music and watching your videos. And you shouldn't rap about how everyone wants to lick your pu**y (reference to the lyrics/video of Big Sean's song Dance A$$ ft. Nicki Minaj), because the fact of the matter is, that shit is gonna be played everywhere whether we like it or not, and all kinds of people will hear it -- including children. We are no longer in an age where we can truly expect parents to filter out what their kids are listening to, even the "best" of parents. Because the fact is, this music is played everywhere.

I have no problem with offensive music, but I do have a problem with it when its forced down everybody's throat -- on the radio, TV, in stores, everywhere! Believe it or not, the music we hear does affect us, at least I believe so. When T-Pain's "Buy You A Drank" came out, everyone started saying "drank" instead of "drink". Lots of people started hash-tagging #IDoIt to their tweets after Big Sean's song. And how many people smoke a blunt in Snoop Dogg's name every single day around the world? How many people started saying "no I'm not lucky, I'm blessed" after Minaj and Drake's song "Moment 4 Life"? And these are fun, small, harmless things.

Imagine if The Weeknd's music was put on blast everywhere. The Weeknd is an independent artist who got everyone hooked on his atmospheric beautiful music. His songs glamorize the fact that he is a heartbreaker who gets drunk, stoned, laid, and high on cocaine every day of the week. Didn't it make you wonder what his lifestyle might be like? I know I did. If you had kids or teenagers, would you want them to listen to that? I don't think I would.

Lots of mainstream rappers talk about how much money they have and how they spend it, and the end result, is sadly, we begin to think that this is cool. We start caring about what car we drive, how many designer clothes we're wearing, and how many champagne bottles we're washing our hands with. No really, this shit really does get to people's heads, and if you don’t believe me, check out this Facebook group. It’s called "TheMoney Killers" and its members live in Dubai and talk about how they spend their money, post pictures of flashy things, and put links and references to "hiphop" songs that are all about that! I'm not saying everyone is like that, but I am saying that lyrics definitely influence us, some more than others.

I recently saw an interview done with Minaj on YouTube.
The interviewer asked her "Why do you think there aren't many female rappers?" These were her comments:
o   "Females don't make it because they don’t understand that its’ a 'business'. They don’t put their business first".
o   "I attack this game from all aspects. And that's what a lot of girls can't do".

 My interpretation? It’s not that a lot of girls CAN’T do it, it’s that a lot of girls WON’T do it. Plus, she doesn't even really answer the question. Is she implying that men do "business" better than woman? How so? She doesn't explain.

I just feel like its a guise for saying, if you really want to make it big as a female, you got to understand that you need to sell more than just your music – that’s where the 'business' part comes in. You need to sell your image, your body, and your dignity. She straight up compares marketing music to marketing clothes, saying that big boobs would catch your eye in a fashion advertisement, which will lead you to go to that store. She acknowledges the fact that she is not a mere rapper; she says, "I'm an entertainer". Yes, that is exactly what she is... an entertainer. It’s not just her music that pleases people, it’s her image, her sexuality, her body, her radical personality.

The weird thing is, she says "I want to explore the business and take it where the guys took it as a businesswoman". But how I see it, is that she is not a businesswoman at all. She is a product. Think about it. They got this girl who knows how to rap and is relatively good looking, and thought "Hey! That's new in the music market... a female rapper!" She even says it herself in the interview: "you have to do your homework on the market". A female rapper is what was lacking in the music industry (demand) and she provided it (supply)... and they did the "market research" on where to put her music on the map... just like a product, like tuna or toothpaste or something.

If you work in the marketing industry like I do you'll know exactly what I mean. We hear these terms on a daily basis. Product positioning. Target Market. Supply and Demand.

Except in this case, its on a very wide scale and the product is a human, and their dignity, sexuality and image is 90% of what makes up the product. When people get bored of the available music and image of the artists they follow, record labels recognize that. So boundaries need to be pushed in order to keep their audiences stimulated – and for females, that often, unfortunately, means sexual boundaries.

There are so many female artists and female rappers that made it big without having to go down that path, like Lauryn Hill or Norah Jones. They were sexy, they were pretty, they were "commercial", they made money from their music, but they did not sell everything they had. And probably didn’t make as much money as Minaj either.

I guess its not Nicki Minaj herself that I'm mad at, I'm just mad that a shocking sexual image is a must if a female is to excel in the music business. I'm mad at radio stations, because record labels work to get their acceptance to play their artists' songs. I'm mad that "consumers" subconciously do have these demands on female artists -- after all, consumers are the stakeholders. And I'm mad that everyone, even small children, is hearing this kind of music. To me, she is just the representation of all that. The same goes for Rihanna and other celebrity figures that push sexual and moral boundaries with every song and video they make. Honestly, I was quite shocked at Rihanna's video "We Found Love" and thought it was completely inappropriate to be played on TV where anyone can watch it (I did enjoy the song though).

I wish I could talk to some of these celebrities. I would ask Nicki if she really thinks she is talented, if she really feels like she's being herself, and why doesn't she advocate at least ONE positive thing in her music instead of rapping about how great her pu**y tastes. Minaj always jokes around that she is bisexual or bi-curious (she never confirms it, I think), why doesn't she do a song condemning everyday violence that gays and lesbians are subjected to just because of their sexuality, for example, as suggested by spoken word poet Jasmine Mans in her spoken word piece "Nicki Minaj"?

I just feel sad to see that this is commercialized hiphop. Granted, hiphop has never been perfect but I do believe it has great potential as it is found in every country in the word and it is a word-based art form which allows a lot of information and knowledge sharing. But I still believe in it, because people all around the world keep it alive, we just have to search for it!

Seeking Out Music

I'm not the biggest fan of most mass-popularized commercial music (and no, I'm not one of those people that hate anything mainstream, I give credit where credit is due whether music is commercial or underground. I will write more on this topic another time). I also get bored of my music library quite fast, especially because I pretty much keep every single song I've liked since grade 6. Since I don't really like listening to anything on the radio or on TV, I've gotten pretty creative with the ways I get new music to listen to.

  • When I first started getting into hip-hop, I really wanted to find new music but I didn't really know where to start without reading an entire anthology on hip-hop's greatest and their history. So I found a friend who was already familiar with the genre, and he generously offered to share some of his music library with me and gave me a huge chunk of songs with some of hip-hop's greatest. He had so many albums -- from Common, Talib,  ATCQ, Mos, Nas... to collection albums of notable songs in hip-hop. I put all of these songs into my iPod and my iTunes and slowly over time, I listened to most of them and remembered which ones I liked. I still owe my friend big time for that one, thanks @OT_Productions :)
  • Another thing I do is listen to mixes by DJ's who had interesting song choices, and who highlighted songs that were not that well-known or not in the mainstream. One such DJ I really enjoyed listening to was @RONEJAXX because he would choose smooth and chill oldskool R&B tracks. Some of them were not that well known, and some of them I didn't listen to in 10 years. He's definetly the DJ to listen to if you want R&B smooth grooves. A great site to find DJ mixes is MixCloud, where you can choose DJ mixes and sets by genre/tags.
  • YouTube is another great source for finding music. A lot of people curate playlists with a specific theme that you can listen to. So let's say I want to find new music by different female rappers that I might not have heard of before, I would do a YouTube search for "female rappers" or a name of a female rapper, and will find that at the bottom of the search results, there will be playlists that might show you what you are looking for. Bahamadia or Jean Grae might be included in playlists such as "My Favorite Hip Hop" or "Female Rappers". Then you can just click on the Female MC's playlist and play everything there until you find stuff that you like. One playlist I'm exploring these days is called Eargasm, you can listen to it here.
  • Music blogs around the world give you access to music that you probably would never stumble upon. I follow a few music blogs that always give good recommendations. I've found random and great music on these kind of blogs; from interesting covers, to great live performances by artists, to just new stuff you never heard of before. It's even more interesting when you follow a blog that focuses on the music scene of another country (this is especially true for hip-hop which has a community, no doubt, in every corner of the globe). One blog that I really enjoy following is Soul11Music, they always recommend nice soulful tracks and R&B joints.
So that's how I find most of my music, really. Of course there are other useful ways like asking friends, listening to something someone recommended on their Twitter or Facebook page, or looking up the source of a sample. However, I find the ways I listed above to be more proactive in finding new music rather than letting it just come to you. Like I said, I get bored really fast with my music library so I have to actively go search for music!

I would love to hear how you find new and interesting music, so share your thoughts in the comments or on my Twitter page.

I'll leave you a song that I randomly found on Youtube the other day. Levitation (Ver 2.0) by Grooveman Spot which has some English rap and rap from a foreign language, I'm not really sure which. The beat is sooo relaxing!

My Challenge With Songwriting

I've never wanted to be just a singer.
I feel like I have so much more to give than just sing other people's song or be a performance artist only. I've always had the vision that I would one day create my own music. Little did I know it was going to be so difficult!
In my past I tried to focus on which instrument was best for me and to master that instrument until I felt comfortable enough to move on to creating music. As I experimented with different instruments (guitar, piano, and voice) I decided that singing was the best one for me.

The reason why I chose singing is because it came pretty naturally to me. Although I studied music theory for many years in school as well as on my own, the mathematical nature of it never really made sense to me outside of the textbook I was studying from. I understood it, but I didn't understand how to apply it. I still feel this to a certain extent, today. A big part of music theory is telling you what music sounds "good" - as in, arranging musical notes into patterns like chords, scales, and chord progressions. Music theory kind of tells you which notes go with which chords... and even when it encourages you to be experimental with your chord progressions, it always puts a label on it: "diminished chords", "augmented chords", "diatonic chords". It really never clicked in my brain in terms of application -- too many words, terms, definitions... and at the end of the day, music was just about feel for me.

For example, in music theory we have "scales" or a collection/pattern of notes that make a certain sound. There is a Blues' scale which makes songs more blue-sy. There is a minor blues' scale, which allows you to make music that sounds like sad blues.

When you play piano or guitar, you need to actually locate these notes on the keyboard/strings. For some people, this comes naturally (as in they don't even need to learn music theory) or they learn it really easily. Not for me, though. No matter how much music theory I learned and tried to apply go guitar/piano, I couldn't do it without feeling so mathematical and systematic about it. End result? I couldn't enjoy myself, feel the music or master the instrument.

However, I (and most singers) was fortunate enough with singing that I never had to memorize different scales or chords... It always came naturally to me. If I wanted to improvise and sing to any chord progression, I can do that pretty easily -- it might not sound like a catchy melody, but it would be at least something like scatting or a not-so-catchy melody. I can also harmonize melodies very easily (in fact I think that is one of my biggest strengths) which makes it easy for me to double vocals on a chorus or do background vocals. I thought it would be easy for me to write melodies, lyrics and songs -- especially that I also write not entirely terrible poetry.

I was so wrong!

  • Making a melody is easy, but making a catchy melody is not easy. Sometimes I have to improvise for hours and over several sessions to come up with something semi-acceptable... and I always end up being unsatisfied with it anyway
  • Even if you DO make a catchy melody, putting words to it is sooo difficult. If you already have words written down, it's going to be really hard to force them into a melody that you like. Sometimes people come up with melodies and then write the lyrics, which I've tried, but I feel like it decreases the quality of my lyrics as I know I could have written something much more interesting/better/complex.
  • Sometimes I just get thunderstruck with inspiration and confidence and I write the best song/hook and I love it! But at the times I really need to write (when other people are depending on me or waiting to collaborate with me, or if I'm just trying to push myself to write something new) almost nothing ever comes out :( I know there is a creative process for stimulating and channeling inspiration at any given time, but I have not figured that out yet.
  • The worst part is that I'm so shy to even show anyone songs that I've written because I feel like everything I write is shit! I feel like I can't really show anyone because its not "acceptable" yet. I can only show someone a song I've written if its has the "semi-acceptable-for-humanity's-listening" stamp... and getting there is a very frustrating concept.
I really hope that I find my own personal formula for managing creativity in songwriting because I really want to release a free mixtape or something by the end of this year -- some songs with my own beats, some songs with other people's beats, but all original songwriting and arrangement. 

If you have any comments/questions/advice, make sure you comment on this entry, or share your thoughts on my Twitter page! :)