Macy Gray turns back the clock: “I kind of learned how to sing listening to jazz albums”

Macy Gray

Macy Gray (Credit: Getty/Matt Winkelmeyer)

There’s always been something old-school about Macy Gray, but the new album from the eccentric R&B singer makes her traditional roots more explicit. “Stripped” shows Gray singing a range of material in a intimate, after-midnight style, backed by an understated bass-drum-guitar jazz group. (Trumpeter Wallace Roney also plays on several tracks.) “Stripped,” which comes out next week, is the closest she’s come to making a Billie Holiday album.

Besides some new songs, the album contains a reworking of her biggest hit — “I Try” — as well as covers of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters.” The distinctiveness of her voice (which she was teased about as a kid) make these songs sound like hers.

Salon spoke to Gray, who lives in Los Angeles, from New York, where she was traveling.

To a lot of listeners, “Stripped” sounds like a change in direction. Does it seem that way to you?

Not really — I kind of learned how to sing listening to jazz albums. I was in jazz bands starting out. And most of the singers I’m influenced by are jazz singers. So it was super-super natural for me — more natural than the records I’m known for. I could do jazz in my sleep.

It was weird to realize that, but it came more natural to me.

Besides liking the style, what made you want to go this direction and play with a jazz group?

It was just something I’d never done before. We did it at an old church in Brooklyn — live, with one mic. It was an interesting way to make a record. I’m a big music fan — it was another way to do it. I wanted to see what it was like.

Besides Billie Holiday, who are some of the other jazz singers you love?

I’m a big Sinatra fan, Nat “King” Cole, Nancy Wilson, Nina Simone — a ton of them. And back in the day Steely Dan was more jazz. I learned how to sing from all those people.. The way (Donald Fagen) sang was kinda jazzlike.

The group you have behind you is very understated and leaves a lot of space between the notes. What were you going for with the band you put together?

It was just me, a drummer, standup bass, and a guitar player. There were no overdubs, no one there but us. We had a trumpeter on a couple songs. But when you have records like that, that’s the whole point — just the song, just the chords, just the musicians. It’s not covered up with production. It’s sexy, it’s raw…. I really loved it; I had a ball doing it.

You’ve got two cover songs on this record, and you’ve made a covers record and an album that covers all of Stevie Wonder’s “Talking Book.” What makes you want to record someone else’s work — when do you know it’s right for you?

When you can sing it and it means the whole world to you — you can put your whole heart in it. You can hear it in your vocals. You can sing it like it’s your own. You can close your eyes… It’s like a song you wish you had written.

“Redemption Song” seems like a natural for you. But Metallica is a less obvious choice. What drew you to that one?

I remember it from back in the day, but never paid that much attention to it until I saw it at a club, and a singer was doing a lounge version of it. I listened the lyrics and said, “Wow — that’s a crazy song! That’s all me.” We jazzed it up — it’s a whole different song.

I’m wondering if you’ve ever sung anything of Prince’s. Was he a big influence on you?

Yeah — he was huge for me, definitely my biggest influence. I never really covered his songs, but I know all of them. I know more Prince songs that I do anybody else’s.

What makes him important to you?

He was so unleashed — he did his own thing, dressed his own way, had his own way of singing. A different way to sing about love. He always had songs about God and sex, and a different way to translate it. And it was always backed up by this awesome musicianship. I’ll still say he was one of the best guitarists who ever lived. If you just listen to him play, it’s crazy.

Do you have a favorite period for him, or favorite album?

Probably “Sign o’ The Times.”

It seems like as a nation we’re talking about race a lot more than we used to. Does the Black Lives Matter movement mean anything to you? 

Back in the day, when we discussed race, we had Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, and we had real progress. But right now it’s mostly people who are upset and arguing — it’s a lot of rhetoric. Now everybody’s a racist, everybody’s mad at everybody else. Everybody wants to blame it on Donald Trump.

I’m not so cheered up about it at the moment. I don’t know if it’s so important to discuss it so much if there’s no real change. Now it’s a lot of people’s opinions.

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Year of the Monkees: How the once-maligned “Pre-fab Four” came out on top — and cemented their legacy

The Monkees

The Monkees (Credit: AP)

The classic rock universe has celebrated some rather huge 50th anniversaries this year.  A trio of legendary albums — The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde” and the Beatles’ “Revolver” — all hit the half-century mark. With a bit less fanfare, the Monkees are also celebrating 50 years in 2016, as the group’s titular TV show premiered on Sept. 12, 1966. In a nod to that momentous anniversary, Michael Nesmith — who has been hard at work on a memoir that’s due next April and not on the road in recent years — announced he is doing one last show with the band in Los Angeles on Sept. 16.

“I am bringing Gretsch, my beautiful, intelligent blonde to help me, and it looks like I’ll make it once again,” Nesmith wrote on Facebook. “I expect it will be fun, and a great way for me to sign out. I see the specter of the multiple Sinatra retirement/farewells — and this seems like the perfect time for me to step off, sit down and shut up.”

Even before Nesmith announced the appearance, however, it felt like 2016 has been the Year of the Monkees. In May, the band, which includes Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork, released a stellar new album, “Good Times!,” featuring songs written by Andy Partridge, Noel Gallagher and Paul Weller, Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard and Weezer’s Rivers Cuomo. On Aug. 26, a three-CD greatest hits package, “Monkees 50,” arrived in stores to provide an overview of the group’s jangly garage-pop, power-pop and a smattering of more outré moments. A week before that, avowed fans the Minus 5 released “Of Monkees and Men,” a lovingly crafted album featuring odes to the band, its history and universe: The ramshackle, rollicking “Micky’s A Cool Drummer,” for example, or the Stones-esque swoon “Boyce and Hart,” a tribute to the Monkees’ songwriting partners.

Die-hard fans — and there are many — won’t at all be surprised by the Monkees’ resurgence. Over the years, the TV show’s ongoing syndication deal kept the band relevant and in the public eye, which helped it amass a healthy fan base. (Rolling Stone notes, for example, that “Good Times!” producer Adam Schlesinger watched the show on MTV in the mid-’80s.) The lingering, negative idea that the Monkees are some prefabricated creation that rose to popularity in the 1960s has also dissipated. “I think that has disappeared,” Tork told Salon earlier this year. “The knives out, the prejudice, the disdain for the Monkees, that’s an old people’s trip, we’re not interested in that.”

But the growing respect for the Monkees is also part of a larger trend toward ingrained musical biases falling away and fading, as newer generations take stock of what came before. Look no further than critics’ punching bags Journey and Toto becoming cool or the way the Yacht Rock phenomenon has transformed overly earnest ’70s and ’80s soft rock into a beloved cult fascination. The Monkees’ legacy is being shaped (or maybe it’s better to say continually reshaped) by fans who never thought any backlash or scorn had merit and newer loyalists who may not be aware of (or care about) the band’s baggage.

Without these expectations, what’s left — as Tork alluded to in the Salon piece, when he said, “The Monkees’ songbook is maybe the third-best songbook. You can’t beat Lennon/McCartney” — is the band’s catalog. The new “Good Times!” sounds remarkably modern, with standouts including Partridge’s effervescent, blue sky-pop gem “You Bring The Summer,” Gibbard’s elegiac, piano-driven “Me & Magdalena” and the Gallagher-Weller British Invasion homage “Birth Of An Accidental Hipster.” It’s a fantastic pop-rock record, no asterisk needed. But time has been kind to the group’s early work — something attributable to the songwriting by notable contributors (Carole King and Gerry Goffin, Neil Diamond, Carole Bayer Sager) and the band members themselves, as well as the attention to detail.

It’s a given that classics such as “Last Train to Clarksville,” “I’m A Believer” and “(I’m Not Your) Steppin’ Stone” endure. But 1967’s “Headquarters,” the first album on which the Monkees “called the musical shots,” as Nesmith put it to Guitar World, shows off the group’s lovely harmonies, gift for arrangements and song selection. And then there’s the 1968 soundtrack “Head,” which not only stands as a landmark release in the realm of psychedelic and late-’60s rock music but also has toyed with the Monkees’ legacy and squeaky-clean reputation. (The “Head” movie itself is another, complicated story, as a 2011 Guardian interview revealed.) Perhaps because the band members initially were given no respect — and were figuring out how their disparate talents fit together once they had taken the reins — there was less pressure to conform to any one approach or sound.

And in hindsight, the TV show was ancillary to the music: Sure it was a way to promote LPs, but more of a parallel creative outlet that had its own unique, specific charms. Micky Dolenz agreed with one journalist’s characterization that there was a “big pop art aspect” to the Monkees. “There was, totally. It was almost like installation art. Performance art!” He also added, “The Beatles got us. John Lennon said, ‘It’s like The Marx Brothers.’ They got the whole dynamic, the whole sensibility. There were others. Frank Zappa, he was a huge fan. Lots of people in the business got it.”

The Beatles’ and Elvis Presley’ appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” certainly changed the lives of thousands of people and inspired just as many to become musicians. The Monkees on TV reinforced for legions of kids that being a musician was an accessible goal and didn’t necessarily require prior expertise.

But although the Monkees themselves could be goofy on TV, the band’s music was never lightweight; it had heft, both in approach and themes. “He took it seriously,” the Minus 5’s Scott McCaughey said of Dolenz‘s participation in the Monkees. “He learned how to play the drums. He had never played drums before, and they made him the drummer in the group, and, sure, he didn’t have to play immediately on the records, but he learned how to play drums. They toured live, and he played the drums. I love his drumming, maybe because he was sort of a novice. There’s something really exciting to me about the way he plays.”

Of course, the band members weren’t necessarily musical neophytes: Before learning drums, Dolenz played guitar, while Davy Jones was an accomplished singer, and Nesmith had his own songwriting style. But well before the concept of punk rock existed, the Monkees rebelled against the idea that musicians needed to be experts to play music — and pushed back against those who didn’t want to give them creative or musical control, as well as anyone who wanted to place limitations or project expectations onto the band. That iconoclastic spirit made the band even more endearing, especially once this history came to light.

Above all, there’s always been something mystifying about why the Monkees worked — first, because four strangers thrown together had such incredible musical chemistry and then why and how the group has endured for 50 years, despite plenty of internal friction. Plenty of other bubblegum-pop acts of yore petered out, while modern made-for-TV musical acts have relatively short shelf lives. Look no further than Big Time Rush, for example, or the Hannah Montana franchise. That glue that’s held the Monkees together through thick and thin is intangible and slippery to define; that ensures that the band is always intriguing.

“I’ll call it a band,” Nesmith told Rolling Stone in May. “But Micky, Peter and I talk about this all of the time because none of us really know. All three of us have our own ideas. This being, ‘What is this thing? What have we got here? What’s required of us? Is this a band? Is this a television show?’ When you go back to the genesis of this thing, it is a television show because it has all those traditional beats.”

Added Nesmith: “But something else was going on, and it struck a chord way out of proportion to the original swing of the hammer. You hit the gong and suddenly it’s huge.”

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Donald Trump after meeting with Peña Nieto: “I happen to have a tremendous feeling for Mexican-Americans”

Enrique Pena Nieto, Donald Trump

Mexico President Enrique Pena Nieto and Donald Trump shake hands after a joint statement in Mexico City, Aug. 31, 2016. (Credit: AP/Marco Ugarte)

GOP nominee Donald Trump waxed diplomatic during a joint news conference with Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico City on Wednesday afternoon.

“We had a very substantive, direct, and constructive exchange of ideas over quite a period of time,” Trump said. The U.S. and Mexico “are united by our support of democracy, a great love for our people and the contributions of millions of Mexican-Americans to the United States. And I happen to have a tremendous feeling for Mexican-Americans.”

Whether genuine or not, Trump on Wednesday diverged heavily from his hard-line primary rhetoric — about deporting 11 million illegal immigrants — and laid out a five-point plan for a hemispheric approach to U.S. relations with Mexico.

Trump called illegal immigration — from Central and South America to the U.S. — a “humanitarian disaster” for “the extreme physical dangers” that the “trek” poses.

“Having a secure border is a sovereign right and mutually beneficial,” he argued before alluding to his proposed wall along the southern border of the United States: “We recognize and respect the right of either country to build a physical barrier or wall on any of its borders to stop the illegal movement of people, drugs and weapons.”

As for his previous promises to supporters that the Mexican government would for whatever reason pay for said wall, Trump said, “We didn’t discuss that.”

Beyond his discussion of immigration policy, the real estate mogul recommended “improving NAFTA,” a Bill Clinton-era globalized trade policy that Trump said ought to be “updated to reflect the realities of today.”

“There are many improvements that could be made that would make both Mexico and the United States stronger and keep industry in our hemisphere,” Trump said, warning of “tremendous competition” from the Eastern Hemisphere. “Improving pay standards and working conditions will create better results for all.”

“I call you a friend,” Trump told Peña Nieto at the conclusion of his written speech before taking questions from the press.

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“Parliamentary coup”: Impeachment of Brazil’s President Rousseff hands power to corrupt, unelected right wing

Dilma Rousseff

Dilma Rousseff (Credit: AP/Eraldo Peres)

Brazil’s left-wing president, Dilma Rousseff, has officially been impeached, in what critics are calling a “coup” and an attack on democracy.

The new right-wing president who will replace her until 2018 was not elected and is unable to run in the next election because he was found guilty of violating campaign-finance limits.

Members of Brazil’s Senate voted 61 to 20 on Wednesday to convict Rousseff of breaking budget laws. They accused Rousseff of corruption for manipulating government accounts in order to hide a budget shortfall. She has pointed out that previous governments did exactly the same thing.

Meanwhile, the majority of the lawmakers who impeached Rousseff face their own investigations for often extreme forms of corruption. Agence France‑Presse has referred to Brazil’s congress as a “den of corruption.”

According to corruption watchdog Transparencia Brasil, 59 percent of the 81 Senate members who voted on Rousseff’s impeachment have been convicted or investigated for crimes of their own. The lower house, which voted to impeach Rousseff in April, is equally corrupt.

Charges against the Brazilian lawmakers who impeached Rousseff include embezzlement, vote buying and even murder, AFP noted.

Salon reached out to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Glenn Greenwald, who lives in Brazil and has been extensively reporting on the issue for months.

“It’s both sad and infuriating to watch a young, vibrant democracy abandon the fundamental principle — the people who decide who leads them — and install a right-wing faction that has been repeatedly rejected by voters, and which is both unelected and unelectable,” he said, responding to the impeachment.

“What just happened in Brazil is a warning to people throughout the democratic world about the ability of media barons and oligarchs to override democratic elections at will in order to impose a self-serving political agenda that they know has never been, and could never be, democratically ratified,” Greenwald added.

Michel Temer, who served as Brazil’s interim president when Rousseff was suspended from the government in May, will remain as the unelected president until 2018, at which point he will be ineligible to run for election.

A construction executive has testified that Temer received a $300,000 bribe, although he denies this. He is by no means the only one in his new government who faces serious corruption allegations.

As soon as Rousseff was suspended, Temer’s interim government was engulfed by a series of corruption scandals. In May, as Salon previously reported, two of the members of Brazil’s new cabinet, including the anticorruption minister, resigned in just two weeks. Leaked recordings proved they were impeaching the elected president on trumped-up, non-impeachable offenses in order to prevent her from investigating the actual corruption they are involved in.

Rousseff’s government had been carrying out an investigation known as Operation Car Wash, looking into widespread bribery at the state-controlled oil company Petrobras. Many of the members of Temer’s government are involved in this corruption scandal.

The United States, which has defended the corrupt impeachment process against Rousseff, characterizing it as democratic and constitutional, announced after her impeachment on Wednesday that it will maintain strong relations with Brazil’s new unelected government.

Rousseff herself has slammed the impeachment process as a “coup.” She has compared her impeachment to her imprisonment by the former U.S.-backed Brazilian dictatorship.

Former presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders released a statement this month “calling on the United States to take a definitive stand against efforts to remove Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff from office.” He wrote, “To many Brazilians and observers the controversial impeachment process more closely resembles a coup d’état.”

Other governments in the region condemned the impeachment on Wednesday. Ecuador and Venezuela withdrew their ambassadors from Brazil in protest. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said his government condemned the “right-wing oligarch’s coup.” Ecuadoran President Rafeal Correa called it an act of “betrayal/treason” that “reminds us of the darkest hours of our America.”

Bolivian President Evo Morales slammed what he called the “parliamentary coup against Brazilian democracy” and said he will withdraw his ambassador. Cuba also published a statement, blasting the move as a “parliamentary coup” meant at reversing the Workers’ Party’s leftist policies. Pan-Latin American news outlet TeleSUR, which is funded by these countries, has long referred to the impeachment as a “coup.”

When Rousseff was ousted from the government in May, she was not charged with a crime. Her use of budget maneuvers is a non-impeachable offense and is common practice for governments.

In May, renowned scholar Noam Chomsky called the impeachment process against Rousseff “a kind of soft coup.” He stressed that Rousseff is “the one leading politician who hasn’t stolen to enrich herself, who’s being impeached by a gang of thieves, who have done so.”

Chomsky accused members of the opposition of “exploiting an economic recession” and using the impeachment in order to topple the Workers’ Party government because they were unable to beat it in an election.

The left-wing Workers’ Party had been in power for 13 years. The right-wing opposition lost the past four elections but has now taken control of the government.

Senator Aecio Neves, the leader of the opposition and former presidential candidate from the centrist, but right-leaning Brazilian Social Democracy Party, lost the 2014 election to Rousseff by 3.5 million votes. He is under investigation for bribery, and his family runs secret bank accounts in Liechtenstein.

Longtime Senate president Renan Calheiros has likewise been accused of accepting millions of dollars’ worth of bribes. He has also been accused of tax evasion and having a lobbyist pay child support for a child he had in an extramarital affair.

For months protesters have been holding demonstrations calling the ouster a “coup” and demanding that Temer step down. Other politicians, such as Brazilian Sen. Vanessa Grazziotin, have joined in condemning the impeachment as a “coup.”

Immediately after assuming the role of interim president, Michel Temer replaced Rousseff’s diverse, progressive cabinet with right-wing, all-white, all-male members. This marks the first time since 1979 that no women are serving in Brazil’s presidential cabinet.

Rousseff condemned the new cabinet, pointing out that just over half of Brazilians identify as being of African descent. She sat down for an interview with Greenwald in May, in which she argued the “interim and illegitimate government will be very conservative in every aspect.” Rousseff emphasized that “not having any women or black people in the government shows [a] certain lack of care for the country you are governing.”

Temer has made it clear that he wants to pursue a right-wing neoliberal agenda, privatizing state assets, gutting government programs and cutting social services.

As interim president, Temer first offered Brazil’s science minister position to a Christian fundamentalist who denies evolution — although Temer ended up appointing him as trade minister instead. He also immediately demoted Brazil’s science ministry and combined it with the telecommunications ministry.

The New York Times also noted that Temer chose “a soybean tycoon who has deforested large tracts of the Amazon rain forest to be his agriculture minister.”

Brazil’s media has been incredibly harsh on Rousseff. Most Brazilian media outlets are controlled by right-wing oligarchs. NPR reported in May that there had been “a lot of fake news” circulating in the country. In the days leading up to the lower house’s vote to impeach Rouseff, 60 percent of the most-shared articles on Facebook were false, according to a University of São Paulo study.

The U.S., which recently backed a military coup in Honduras, largely remained silent while the undemocratic process unfolded in Brazil. The State Department persistently refused to answer reporters’ questions.

Citing U.S. government documents, whistleblowing journalism organization WikiLeaks said Temer previously served as “an embassy informant” for U.S. intelligence and the U.S. military. A cable shows that the U.S. considered Temer’s centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party as a possible counterforce against the left-wing Workers’ Party.

Leftist Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo faced a similar parliamentary coup in 2012. Several Latin American countries blasted the process as a coup, but the U.S. was largely silent, critics noted, much as it has been about the parliamentary coup in Brazil.

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Wealthy Trump fundraiser lost in landmark EEOC sexual-abuse case

Donald Trump

Donald Trump (Credit: Reuters/Jim Young/Shutterstock/Photo montage by Salon)

Donald Trump cleared some time in his busy tweeting schedule to attend a fundraiser on Tuesday in California’s Tulare County. The luncheon, which cost $2,700 a plate to attend and $25,000 for a meet-and-greet with the candidate, was a huge hit, raising $1.25 million, a reported record for the area.

The pricy fundraiser is also a reminder that, contrary to conventional media wisdom, Trump enjoys quite a bit of support from the wealthy elite of the Republican party. And many of these elite attendees have political opinions that sound just like those of the Breitbart News-reading base.

One of the co-hosts of the Tulare fundraiser was John Harris, the head of the Harris Ranch collection of businesses, which is one of the biggest family-owned agricultural companies in the country. He also owns a horse farm, where the 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome was raised.

Harris was also a prominent villain in a landmark case regarding sexual violence in the workplace. In 2005, Harris Farms lost a court case against the EEOC, after Harris employee Olivia Tamayo accused her employer of not protecting her against a supervisor whom she said repeatedly raped and sexually harassed her. Harris minimized Tamayo’s complaints and made nasty accusations about the motives of the EEOC in pursuing her case.

The facts of the case are simple: In 1999, Tamayo, a Mexican immigrant who had worked in the fields for Harris Farms since the 1980s, told her employer that her supervisor, Rene Rodriguez, had raped her three times and, on a separate occasion, punched her in the face.

“Instead of investigating and protecting Tamayo from further harm, company officials turned against her, according to EEOC attorneys,” Lawyers Weekly reported in 2005. “She said the company assigned her to work in isolated areas, putting her in danger of additional assaults from the supervisor, who continued to berate and threaten her.”

Tamayo quit in 2001, and the EEOC filed a suit on her behalf in 2002. Harris fought the EEOC tooth and nail over the charges, spending “hundreds of thousands of dollars to fight the lawsuit because it was convinced that the relationship between Ms. Tamayo and the supervisor had been consensual,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

In 2005, a jury ordered Harris Farms to pay almost $1 million to Tamayo for its failure to protect her and for retaliating when she reported the abuse. (The award was later reduced to $800,000 because of federal limits on punitive damages in these cases.)

Harris himself was livid, describing the case as “extortion” and telling The Wall Street Journal, “They considered us a deep-pocketed employer.” He appealed the case and lost again in 2008.

“Managerial agents criticized Tamayo for raising the issue of past harassment in a new complaint,” the Ninth Circuit Court wrote in the decision to uphold the decision, and “indicated that complaints like hers cost Harris Farms time and money, suggested to Tamayo that continuing with her complaint would be difficult, and recommended to the Human Resources Department that Tamayo be suspended in the wake of a complaint.”

Salon reached out to Harris, the Trump campaign and the Tulare County Republicans about this story, but received no response.

After the 2012 election, Republican officials put together an extensive “autopsy” report, interviewing more than 2,600 people about how to open the Republican Party up to more voters, especially women and people of color. One major concern was the public perception that Republicans were waging a “war on women,” after multiple Republican candidates lost races after making tone-deaf remarks about sexual assault. Most notable among those was Todd Akin, a U.S. Senate candidate in Missouri, who claimed that women rarely get pregnant after “legitimate rape,” the insinuation being that women who get abortions after rape are lying to conceal consensual sex. In 2013, Kellyanne Conway, who is now Trump’s campaign manager, put together a presentation begging Republican men to cut it out with the insensitive rape remarks.

The rise of Trump has been widely interpreted in the political media as the conservative base rejecting these efforts to form a more welcoming Republican Party. In March, Politico ran a piece that pitted “members of the GOP establishment,” who supposedly want a friendlier party, against primary voters, who love this racist and sexist red meat.

But the example of Harris suggests this dichotomy may be more a product of wishful thinking than based in the evidence. Harris, who held a fundraiser for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in 2012 that raised a million dollars, is a classic example of a wealthy donor-class Republican.

And yet Harris’ behavior during the Tamayo case is tailored neatly to the political beliefs of the rabid Trump-loving Republican base: ugly and dismissive towards Mexican immigrants, quick to paint a rape accuser as a greedy liar, seeing rich, white men as the victims of politically correctness-crazed government officials.

These arguments have a lot of appeal not just in white working-class communities of America, but in the mansions and country clubs of the wealthy white men who run this country. Just because their Trump rallies are $2,700 a plate and held away from the cameras doesn’t mean their politics are any more enlightened than those of the ordinary Joe voters wearing anti-Clinton T-shirts at a Trump rally.

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Bad girls, big trouble: The self-destructive young woman as feminist archetype

White Girl; Antibirth

Morgan Saylor in “White Girl;” Natasha Lyonne in “Antibirth” (Credit: FilmRise/IFC Midnight)

Half a century or so after the birth of the modern feminist movement, female sexuality and sexual agency — indeed, female autonomy in any form — remain an explosive cultural force. We can insist that shouldn’t be true and observe that women have made tremendous strides toward equality in many areas of life. But so many of American society’s political disputes and so much of the on-and-off “culture war” of the last several decades boil down to profound unease over the nature of female power.

At least three of the year’s most widely discussed film-festival premieres address this issue head-on, and I’m pretty sure they won’t be the only examples. In terms of genre, flavor and sensory experience, these movies are quite different: Danny Perez’s “Antibirth” is a grotesque indie horror film starring Natasha Lyonne and Chloë Sevigny, heavily dosed with black humor and bad acid. Elizabeth Wood’s “White Girl” is closer to urban social realism mixed with a cautionary drug-abuse fable. Andrea Arnold’s “American Honey” is a whole bunch of things, including a classic road-trip movie, an exploration of contemporary youth culture and a Bonnie-and-Clyde tale of doomed love.

But all three are rooted in the archetype of the Bad Girl, the young woman who gets high and has lots of sex and makes questionable decisions and does not conform to anyone’s idea of a model citizen. All three make the still-revolutionary point that such a person is just as entitled to be the protagonist of her own story as generations of reckless and self-destructive men have been.

I’m not going to say much more right now about “American Honey,” which is the first U.S.-made feature by the abundantly talented British director Andrea Arnold (who made “Fish Tank” and the magnificent, nearly wordless 2011 adaptation of “Wuthering Heights”). It’s a 162-minute road odyssey shot in numerous American locations that stars Shia LaBeouf and the spectacular newcomer Sasha Lane. It was a sensation at Cannes and might end up being the magnum opus in this particular vein, as well as one of the most memorable films of 2016. It will open in North America at the end of September, and you’ll definitely be hearing more about it before then.

“Antibirth” and “White Girl” both premiered at Sundance last winter and (presumably by coincidence) both are opening this week in New York theaters, with wider national releases and streaming video to follow. Having finally seen both films, I can see why so many tweets out of Park City mentioned them in the same sentence. To put it bluntly, both of these ambitious debut features are stories about young women with impressive libidinal appetites, unleashed upon an unsuspecting world as forces of anarchy. Lou, the permanently hammered dead-end Michigan hotel maid played by Lyonne in “Antibirth” (who finds herself pregnant after a sexual encounter she can’t remember) expresses herself this way: “Let me tell you what I need: candy, money and whippets. Hey, do my tits look bigger to you?” By the way if you don’t know what she means by “whippets,” she’s not referring to a breed of dog and you clearly haven’t been living right.

Both films feature a whole bunch of drugs and a whole bunch of sex. Interestingly enough, it’s the gruesome horror movie made by a man that portrays those subjects with the most ironic distance and the least desire to titillate, not the gritty urban drama made by a woman. (Maybe there’s some larger point about gender and authorship to make there but also maybe not.) Wood, the writer and director of “White Girl” (which was apparently based on her own experiences), walks a fine line between social portraiture and exhibitionism in her portrayal of Leah, the gorgeous and self-destructive gamine played by Morgan Saylor. I’m troubled by the question raised in one particularly debauched scene in “White Girl”: Can one really snort coke off a male acquaintance’s erect member? So much chaos theory is invoked thereby that it just seems like it wouldn’t work. Anyway, in both cases, a female character who in more traditional tales might be presented as an innocent victim, seduced by masculine power and her weakness, becomes something else entirely: for better or worse, the actor rather than the acted-upon.

“Antibirth” and “White Girl” mark the arrival of two immensely promising young writer-directors with an obvious flair for the medium and a feeling for cinema history: Every time I think that new filmmaking talent is inexorably drawn into episodic television, I am proven wrong. One could build a case that “Antibirth,” in which Lyonne and Sevigny play a pair of losers in downscale exurban Michigan — women who are (probably) well north of 30 but steadfastly refuse to grow up — is a more subversive and more deeply feminist work than “White Girl,” which is more conspicuously a young woman’s coming-of-age story. Something tells me I’d be better off not making pronouncements like that. At any rate, “Antibirth” is a hallucinatory, visionary and profoundly deranged tale of deepest Trumpian America. Perez bounces off the politics of rape and abortion and ingrained male privilege and media hypnosis, in between scenes involving an unfortunate new drug that may be a flesh-eating alien monstrosity or medical experimentation performed by fur-clad characters from children’s TV.

Lou is a thoroughly amoral character with a nonexistent moral compass, oriented almost exclusively to gratifying desires that probably shouldn’t be gratified. When she begins to show obvious signs of pregnancy, despite lacking a clear memory of having had unprotected sex (or any other kind), she complains, “I can barely take care of myself, let alone some weird Immaculate Conception shit.” It would be untrue to the spirit of “Antibirth,” whose conceptual grandfathers may include David Cronenberg, Darren Aronofsky and John Waters, to claim that Lou’s redeeming characteristics outweigh her flaws or that pluck and sisterhood will carry her through her bizarre ordeal. But Lyonne’s performance is a marvel of humor and compassion. Consigned to a mock-Dante realm of pimps and drug dealers and unnatural or supernatural phenomena, she refuses to be consumed by self-pity. As for being consumed by other things — who among us can prevent that?

“White Girl” is also an arresting and well-told tale but in a far more familiar vein. It’s the story of a middle-class refugee drawn into the inner-city drug trade and the overly mythologized lifestyle that supposedly accompanies it. Leah (played by Saylor, a magnetic 21-year-old actress) is a white college sophomore from somewhere in middle America who is presumably attending NYU or Columbia and follows a familiar New York pattern, moving into a neighborhood of black and brown people in pursuit of a bigger apartment and cheaper rent. She and her roommate Katie (India Menuez) are no doubt paying more than whoever lived in their place before but a lot less than the professional couple with Manhattan jobs who will move into the same building two or three years hence.

Leah is immediately drawn to Blue (Brian Marc), a handsome young Latino man who sells drugs on her corner in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens. (Indeed, during the time it took this movie to reach the public, Ridgewood has become well established as a gentrification frontier.) If anything, writer-director Wood goes out of her way to make clear that Blue is not the villain of this story. Whether their “West Side Story” romance is destined to last, Blue consistently gives Leah good advice: Don’t take the drugs I sell, stay away from the crazy and dangerous people in the neighborhood, and don’t get involved in selling to white people in Manhattan. Of course she doesn’t take any of his advice and neither does he, once he figures out that the people she knows who go to media parties in Chinatown will pay triple the Ridgewood street price for bags of cocaine or heroin.

Wood creates a compelling portrait of an effervescent young woman with zero impulse control who is torn between competing social worlds, and Saylor gives a star-is-born performance, playing Leah as a half-evil elf princess who has wandered out of the magical forest to drive the human race crazy. Rather too quickly, they end up in “What could possibly go wrong?” territory, when fate entrusts Leah with a large amount of narcotics and then a large amount of cash, both of which of course belong to other people who would like to get them back.

If both these stories have a moral agenda, well, why shouldn’t they? Storytelling almost always involves crafting or embedding a moral message, visibly or otherwise. But in ways large and small, these films also make the point that women are still judged differently for pursuing heedless pleasure and violating the moral code. Their Bad Girl heroines stand astride the globe, bong in one hand and crumpled $100 bill in the other, demanding liberty or death.

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100 percent bananas? Meet the fruitarians, who believe we can live on raw fruit alone

Freelee

Freelee the Banana Girl in her video “Watch me eat 51 BANANAS today!!!!!” (Credit: YouTube/Freelee the Banana Girl)

Last week almost 600 people trekked to the Adirondacks to upstate New York’s Camp Walden, the site of the annual Woodstock Fruit Festival. If the name Woodstock evokes indulgent images of hedonism and hallucinogens, think again. The only type of high at this gathering is a fructose high. The festival, dubbed the “Super Bowl of Health, Fitness, and Social Events,” is an annual assembly of fruitarians, health-obsessed followers of a diet that some call revolutionary and others consider a new extreme eating cult.  

The eight-day Woodstock Fruit Festival was started in 2011 by Michael Arnstein, a lithe 39-year-old former ultra marathoner who had adopted a fruit-based diet three years earlier. Arnstein has credited his practice of eating almost entirely fruit (as much as 30 pounds a day, as he told the late Details magazine in 2012) to improving his eyesight, lowering his body fat and staving off illness. As a competitive athlete, he had originally tried the diet to improve his stamina and cross the finish line faster, and it worked. And within a few months, he had shaved 17 minutes off his previous personal best time in the marathon. Now Arnstein is a cornerstone figure in the world of fruitarianism, most often considered raw veganism at its most extreme, the kind of diet that makes hard-core paleo and vegan regimens seem like a fast food binge.

While there’s no single way to be a fruitarian, generally the diet requires making 75 percent or more of your daily food intake raw fruit, which includes everything from acid fruits like citrus and pineapple, to sweet fruits like bananas to various dried fruit. The consumption of seeds and nuts, though tolerated, is frowned on by hard-liners.

After launching his informational site The Fruitarian (which is geared toward athletes like himself), Arnstein founded the Woodstock Fruit Festival to connect with like-minded fans of fruitarian eating. The festival’s attendance has grown from 150 people in its inaugural year to almost 600. The fest might be thought of as adult summer camp for fruit fanatics or, say, a sweet, wholesome, unpeeled Burning Man (sans salt, alcohol or caffeine). With some exceptions, the crowd is made up of mostly lean, dreadlocked drum circle leaders and aspiring yogis with whimsically painted faces. And though you don’t have to be in aspirational shape to attend, it helps.

Activities include everything from the expected exercises (yoga, meditation) to lectures (for example, “Are You an Angry Vegan?” and “How to Use the Right Herbs and Supplements to Overcome Nutritional Deficiencies and Thrive in Your Raw Food Lifestyle”), and social activities (late-night dance parties and speed dating but no Bananagrams). One of the festival’s most popular events is the “Midnight Durian Vampire Party,” a near-Dionysian ritual where carts of the pungent Durian fruit are wheeled out in the middle of the night to ecstatic revelers like the man who swore that “your body craves that sulphur flavor. . . . If there’s something you miss eating, durian starts to taste just like it.” 

Fruitarianism is hardly a formal practice. It can be traced back to 1918, when an Australian newspaper wrote about it, and Steve Jobs tried it out in the 1970s when it first started gaining a following in the U.S. But the trend didn’t take off until 2006, when Douglas Graham self-published “The 80/10/10 Diet,” which posits that a person’s consumption of 80 percent of his or her calories from fruit-based carbohydrates, 10 percent from fat and 10 percent in protein will result in weight loss, increased energy and mental clarity and all around better health.

The uncomplicated nature of the fruitarian diet (no difficult to find ingredients, cumbersome calorie counting or nutritional equations) and the fact that its staples taste good and available at every supermarket make it stand out among diet fads.

“The fruitarian diet is based on what we’re designed to eat as opposed to a diet that will produce health improvements,” Don Bennett, director of the Health 101 Institute, told Salon. Bennett has been following an all-fruit diet for 25 years and is a mainstay at the festival, counseling others on the power of fresh produce.

“Personally, my body was able to heal permanent nerve damage and my vitality increased noticeably,” Bennett added. “Those who . . . have transitioned to the diet and who are doing it successfully don’t tend to go back to what they once ate. So the recidivism rate is far lower than any other diet. It provides the best odds of never getting a serious diagnosis.”

That may not matter to the more than 700,000 people who follow the notorious Freelee the Banana Girl on YouTube. Freelee, who has claimed to eat as many as 51 bananas a day, has brought attention — and controversy — to the movement in recent years. One of the most recognizable figures of fruitarianism, Freelee is regularly accused of bullying others into adopting the lifestyle. She is a social media star, yes, but she has her share of haters.

Fruitarianism has been criticized for its extreme and cultish nature. It’s not surprising perhaps that it has begun to flourish at a time when orthorexia, a recently identified eating disorder characterized by an unhealthy obsession with healthy eating, has moved into the vernacular.

Some experts have expressed concerns over what seem like obvious nutritional deficiencies. “Don’t think a fruitarian diet is a safe or beneficial eating plan,” LeeAnn Weintraub, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian nutritionist told Salon. “Although fruit is healthy, it’s primarily carbohydrates, and the body requires protein and fat, as well as micronutrients like iron, calcium and some B vitamins, which cannot be obtained in adequate amounts from fruit alone.”

“I’m also concerned about the high sugar content of this kind of diet without the balance of protein and healthy fats,” she said.

Ashton Kutcher experienced this firsthand, when he found himself in the hospital after adopting a fruitarian diet to play Steve Jobs in the 2013 biopic “Jobs.” Kutcher told reporters, “My insulin levels got pretty messed up and my pancreas kind of went into some crazy, the levels were really off and it was painful. I didn’t know what was wrong.”

None of that seems to make a difference to the devotees who eagerly consumed 100,000 pounds of raw fruit at the Woodstock Fruit Festival. To be sure, the fruitarian movement certainly offers more exotic retreats for the ultra committed like Costa Rica. But if you’re intrigued at the prospect of spending a week opening a thousand coconuts, peeling twice that many bananas and bonding over the joys of a bottomless fruit salad bar that never closes, the Woodstock Fruit Festival is now taking reservations for next year.

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Bring back camp! Why “The People v. O.J.” and “The Get Down” point to its possible — and much-needed — rebirth

"The People vs. O.J. Simpson;" "The Get Down"

“The People vs. O.J. Simpson;” “The Get Down” (Credit: FX/Netflix)

I miss camp.

You’d think I wouldn’t, since I, like most hip consumers of pop culture, am surrounded by a banquet of irony these days. For more than a decade now almost all the best comedies, from the early days of “The Office” to Amy Schumer’s sketches, have had a tone of arch irony. Irony is also the preferred tone of the internet, as best personified by the recently departed Gawker and its anti-smarm stance.

Sarcasm is the lingua franca of the 21st century, which would make one think that camp — the aesthetic that invented giving the ironic side-eye towards smarmy middle-American bullshit — would be everywhere.

But it’s not. No, the preferred form that today’s irony takes is snark: a stance of ironic detachment, a form of irony that puts the purveyor in a position of overt superiority to his or her object of derision.

Camp, in contrast, is a form of humor that loves to wallow. The snarker sees a collection of Hummel figurines and issues a sharp witticism connecting their cloying aesthetic to, say, the Trump campaign. But the camp aficionado gathers the Hummel figurines to his breast, brings them into his home and artfully arranges them to suggest that the tots with umbrellas are engaged in orgiastic worship of the little boy reading a paper on the potty.

It was at the Republican National Convention (where else?) when it hit me how hard it is to really indulge my campier sense of humor these days.

Only Las Vegas can deliver the levels of sublime bad taste available on the first night of the RNC, when Three Dog Night played at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But my appreciation for the glorious shittiness of it all had no audience. My video of fireworks exploding over Cleveland while “R.O.C.K. in the U.S.A.” blared on the speakers got no Instagram likes. My desire to own a pair of flag-festooned women’s cowboy boots seemed to confuse my social media followers more than delight them. These people probably wouldn’t enjoy a ’70s John Waters movie, I thought to myself, as I shifted the tone of my RNC social-media coverage toward the more internet-friendly snark.

It makes sense, of course. Camp is subtle and indirect form of humor, and we live in an era of bluntness. Camp gave marginalized people a way to needle the middlebrow world without direct confrontation — most normies are more confused by camp than offended by it — but direct confrontation is now in vogue. Camp embraces ambiguity; it’s refusing to draw a hard line between mocking and genuinely enjoying the Lifetime weepie movie you are watching. But we live in an era where people want clear, delineated lines so they know whether they should take offense at someone’s joshing.

But two recent TV shows heavily lean on elements of camp, showing that American culture shouldn’t be so hasty as to leave it behind: Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson” on FX and Baz Luhrmann’s portrayal of the dawn of hip-hop in “The Get Down” on Netflix.

Both shows deal with complex, real-life historical events involving a number of sensitive issues regarding race, gender, media and economics and thus would seem to forbid approaching the subject matter through a lens of pure nostalgia, as is found in a show like “Stranger Things.”

A gritty, overly serious tone for “The Get Down” or “The People vs. O.J.” would not serve the material well, either. It would elide the undeniable weirdness of the Simpson trial and the circus around it. It would also tragically conceal the genuine joyfulness and freedom of the early days of hip-hop, removing the fun and humanity from the story in the name of “realism.”

But camp, an aesthetic that lives in the liminal area between mocking a thing and loving a thing, gives Murphy and Luhrmann space to play around with these stories, creating more textured narratives than you’d get with a more straightforward approach.

Take the last scene in the second episode of “The Get Down,” where aspiring diva Mylene (Herizen Guardiola) rebels against her fundamentalist Christian preacher father (Giancarlo Esposito) by ripping off her choir robes in church to reveal a sexy dress and singing a disco-fied version of a Pentecostal hymn while the congregation flails around in religious ecstasy.

Needless to say, if that scene had been played straight, it would have been at best cringeworthy in the earnestness of the feminist message or more likely completely incoherent. But when properly viewed as an exemplar of camp, which is mostly indifferent to plebeian concerns about coherence, the scene is wondrous. The ecstasy of the worshippers is both mocked and envied. The over-the-top dress underlines the power of female sexuality while also sending up the objectification of women in pop music. Viewers are laughing at the ridiculousness of this scene, but in their laughter they are also rooting for Mylene. Some things do not fit neatly into boxes, and unlike snark, camp doesn’t ask them to.

“The People vs. O.J. Simpson” pulled off a similar trick in its “Marcia Marcia Marcia” episode, which dealt in large part with the bizarre nationwide controversy over prosecutor Marcia Clark getting a bad haircut. The whole incident, which happened in real life, is portrayed under a thick layer of campy humor. The heightened promises of the hairdresser, Clark’s giddily naive hopes that this is going to be fabulous, the hostile reactions of the men around her: It’s all played up for humor, but it’s also deeply sad.

Without that humor, the extent of Clark’s suffering over a haircut would be too absurd, and many viewers would reject believing that this even happened. (It did.) But camp creates space to mock the situation while still siding with Clark and her horrible haircut. We’ve all been there, girl, though most of us were lucky enough not to be on national television on our worst hair day.

That these examples both center around stories of women trying to find their way in a man’s world is not a coincidence; that theme has always been the bread and butter of camp. The sublime ridiculousness of the straight world is easiest to see when mocking the impossible situations that women are put in by it.

There are other campy scenes in the O.J. Simpson film but I won’t spoil them for you.

Perhaps these examples represent the last gasps of camp as it goes gently into that good night, overwhelmed by American culture’s increasing intolerance for ambiguity, especially when it comes to humor. Or maybe these shows are seedlings, evidence of a rebirth of humor and art that lives the gray areas, that sees the beauty in bad taste and resists a plain meaning that can be crammed into 140 characters.

I certainly hope it’s the latter, because I have a 50-piece Hummel figurine collection sitting in storage, just waiting to be put on display with my lunchbox collection and set of Brady Bunch memorabilia.

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Colin The Lionheart: Kaepernick is pushing the envelope for black male athletes

Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick (Credit: AP/Ben Margot)

In November 2014, I along with the rest of Black America learned that a 12-year-old black boy in Ohio had been gunned down while playing in the park with a BB gun within less than 2 seconds of police arriving. Ohio was and is an open carry state.

As with any tragic death that lies on the on the same path of others in America, Tamir Rice’s made our world stand still. I still remember attempting earnestly to council my nephew about what he could possibly do in the face of a police encounter.

In December 2015, post-Ferguson, post-Baltimore I along with the rest of Black America learned that the officers who approached Rice in their police cruiser and opened fire were not going to be indicted, and that the state prosecutor fought fervently for that conclusion.

Confused and overcome with a certain clarity of mind, I expressed my concerns on Twitter. I thought about who could possibly shed light on such an injustice. There were many organizations, agencies and names that floated in my head. There had to be somebody who was influential enough to call a crime against humanity out for what it was.

Without a doubt, Ohio native LeBron James was the first person to come to mind. He had the platform, the influence and the history of being vocal, to do something. I started the campaign #NoJusticeNoLeBron to urge him to discontinue play for whatever amount of time he saw useful, as a method of showing the severity of the what is destroying lives across the U.S.

The backlash I received was uncanny. I was accused of starting a race war, of myself not having any skin in the game of change agency, and outright laziness. When asked about the Tamir Rice verdict and the calls for a sit-out, James said: “I don’t have enough information on the subject.”

I lost respect for James answering in that fashion but I still admire his philanthropy, greatness as an athlete and service as a role model. The death Muhammad Ali came months after. We collectively sighed in anguish because a man who stood for more than what his body was capable of was no longer with us. The world would never be the same. What his passing confirmed to me is that the occasion I called for required a different breed of athlete to rise to. I just didn’t expect it would be an NFL star.

***

Colin Kaepernick, a mixed race, foster-child of white parents who’s the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, has decided to not stand any more for the national anthem unless America addresses its addiction to oppressing people of color.

For the last few preseason games, Kaepernick has quietly sat during the song written by slavery advocate Francis Scott Key. Here is his third verse reference championing the industry.

Last Friday, the mainstream media finally caught wind of his silent protest. Since then, Kaepernick has teetered on the side of being a hero for the voiceless masses who’ve rarely drank from the wells of justice, and the razor-sharp teeth of Americans who’ve called his stance near treason.

Kaepernick, 28, explained to the media that he has taken more time to watch and learn about the current state of America, saying with conviction, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

He decided that protest an anthem authored by a slavery protagonist that lays a fragile promise of freedom and equality was his best option. America is proving him right. Kaepernick has been called the N-word more times than ever before. Fans once dazzled by his fearless play and handsome smile are hanging his jerseys from trees setting them ablaze on video, with the anthem playing in the background. Twitter users are urging Kaepernick and his supporters to go back to Africa if they feel their country is too oppressive. The punishment he is poised to undergo doesn’t come as a surprise. A few months earlier this year WNBA players stood unmoved when they were fined for wearing T-shirts that supported the Black Lives Matter movement and the police who were killed in Dallas. In a response to their aesthetic protest police usually on guard at Minnesota Lynx games vowed to not protect the team. Their fine was later rescinded by the league president. Still members of the team took their protest further deciding not to answer any post-game questions that weren’t about the pressing issues in society. Clearly, athletes have also realized that the suffering is far too acute.

 

***

 

Kaepernick’s protest means more than the fence-riding rhetoric of other athletes. And it is not meant to pit them against each other. But, they should notice that he took a side. He wasn’t shamed into respectability politics that forces black athletes to mention intra-communal crime in the same breath as state-sanctioned violence, every time. Kaepernick is calling into account a system of inequality that fills prisons with black and brown people; floods narcotics into the neighborhoods of black and brown people; kills whites at the hands of police six times less than black and brown people; and intentionally floods the water systems used by black and brown people with lead.

He is addressing the most poignant manifestation of white supremacy, it’s rogue police forces. This stance took the type of bravery Scott-Key fantasized about when he wrote his ballad of love for what was then a chattel slaving nation. The moment we’ve arrived at is necessary. It was brewing. Recently in an interview for Vox.com acclaimed olympian John Carlos remarked, “And so I’m really frustrated with a lot of today’s stars, who have an opportunity to speak up but don’t. They think they’re secure in their little bubbles of fame and wealth. They think racism and prejudice can’t touch them because they’ve achieved a certain level of success.”

 

An argument consistently made for athletes who join struggles is their risk of losing money. Which begs the question, how much is silence about oppression worth? Are endorsements the duct tape over the mouths of those with the largest platform? Money will be lost. He’s aware of that. But unlike many others in his position, he’s going outside the realms of respectable dissent. Money can’t bring the justice that he believes people of color need here. The fact that he’s now in this position proves it. Black NBA players became the wealthiest group of black people in America this year and this also happens to be the same year that Philando Castile was killed by a police officer in Minnesota with his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter in the car. His killer didn’t ask what his socioeconomic status was. The class argument is a mute one.

Kaepernick has made many difficult decisions in his life. His latest goes far beyond which receiver to go to on third down. He’s chosen to tread the waters of Ali, Paul Robeson, and many others.

We all know that football is nothing less than America’s game. Right now America is hemorrhaging, as it always has. We need people like Kaepernick to do just what he did, raise awareness. His story is far from over. Kaepernick is used to making plays. He’s done it all his life. But in a place where blind patriotism silently condones indifference to suffering, there are those who make the plays for justice. This is where he stands, possibly all alone, for something.

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Ryan Lochte’s redemption tango: Can “Dancing With the Stars” turn “America’s idiot sea cow” back into a hero?

Ryan Lochte

Ryan Lochte (Credit: AP/Martin Meissner)

Hollywood is full of roads to redemption for those who have committed the most egregious of sins. For many, the journey can be twisted and rocky and tends to involve a fair amount of time spent away from the klieg lights of celebrity.

That is, unless that person happens to be U.S. Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte. As of Tuesday morning, Lochte is officially a contender on Season 23 of the hit reality competition “Dancing with the Stars.” He’ll be hoofing it alongside 12 more beloved celebrities, including Maureen McCormick, aka Marcia Brady; Marilu Henner, who unlike Lochte has a highly superior autobiographical memory; model (and Kardashian-adjacent personality) Amber Rose; Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, and interesting enough, another U.S. Olympian, gymnast Laurie Hernandez.

Lochte’s dancing partner is Cheryl Burke, who has previously been paired with Antonio Sabàto Jr., an actor lately known for his roles in direct to DVD films and who recently opined at the GOP convention that Obama is a Muslim, and Tom DeLay, the former congressman who was indicted for money laundering. We’re just going to leave that one right there.

Reports of Lochte’s participation began circulating last week, but that was before the news broke that Brazilian authorities were charging the athlete with falsely reporting a crime during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.  This was the result of his having “overexaggerated” allegations of being held at gunpoint along with three other U.S. swimmers and robbed by a man impersonating a police officer.

Reasonable human beings would not be out of line for thinking that ABC may have had second thoughts about incorporating the 32-year-old Lochte into the 23rd season of its highest-rated series, especially given the extent to which his behavior cast a shadow over U.S. participation in this summer’s Games. Ralph Lauren and Speedo thought better of continuing to associate with him; both nixed their endorsement deals.

Never mind all that: ABC is moving ahead with its decision and why not? Lochte, whose actions inspired HBO’s late-night host John Oliver to dub him “America’s idiot sea cow,” is the second most decorated male Olympic swimmer of all time after Michael Phelps. “Dancing with the Stars” loves its Olympians: Gymnast Shawn Johnson, ice dancer Meryl Davis, figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi and speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno each won their respective “Dancing” seasons.

This season features two Olympians, and it’s nice to see Hernandez get a shot at prime-time glory in a different setting. Nevertheless, a person may wonder why ABC went with Lochte as this season’s second Olympic contender as opposed to anyone else who honorably represented the United States in Rio.

Part of the answer lies in the unstated role of “Dancing with the Stars”: It grants faded celebrities a shot at redemption with the public. Mind you, most “Dancing” competitors don’t need to salvage their reputations. Rather, they have been asked because they’re beloved by fans, are representatives of pop culture nostalgia or their careers could use a jumpstart.

Plus, every “Dancing” roster includes a few contenders who raise eyebrows. Past rounds have featured such polarizing figures as Paula Deen, Nancy Grace and Bristol Palin, but none of them competed while facing criminal charges in a foreign country.

Therefore, the controversial swimmer’s current notoriety makes him the perfect heel in a season that will also feature Vanilla Ice, who has restyled himself as a home-improvement host, and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose shattered presidential hopes link the fall premiere of “Dancing” to the election cycle.

In the end, Lochte’s odds of going the distance will be up to viewers. Historically athletes have done well on “Dancing with the Stars,” but its victors tend to be experts in executing a perfect tango that pairs demonstrable charisma with physical skill. Lochte already suffers from a serious deficit in one of those areas, which portends that redemption may not be on his dance card.

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