Issuu on Google+

22 THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE

SEPTEMBER 10, 2012

SEPTEMBER 10, 2012

A&C

THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE 23

Hip-Hop artist Cazwell has described his character and style as

“if Biggie Smalls ate Donna Summer for breakfast.”

Photo courtesy Drew Farrar

emcee often posseses a lengthy criminal background. Some were gangbangers while others sold drugs. Some were reputedly wife beaters, killers, robbers and thieves. But the last thing one would expect from such a ruthless genre is homosexuality. Hip-hop is among the last forms of artistic expression where homophobia is not only accepted, but brazenly encouraged. The phrase “no homo” is a common slang term sprinkled throughout hip-hop culture meant to clear any doubt that a man is gay. But the red-blooded world of hip-hop was awakened in early July when the high-profile, double-platinum hip-hop/R&B artist Frank Ocean, who has penned songs for Kanye West, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, revealed that his first love was a man. This was especially shocking for some, as Ocean is a member of the rap collective Odd Future, which is notorious for its misogynist, violent and homophobic lyrics. Group frontman Tyler, the Creator even uses gay slurs 213 times in his solo album, “Goblin.” While Ocean is the most prominent emcee to admit same-sex orientation, he is hardly the first. Many LGBT hip-hop artists, such as the ’90s group Rainbow Flava, have been making music since the genre’s inception under the umbrella term “homo-hop,” or queer hip-hop, a style of music often containing aggressively pro-gay lyrics that directly confront the perceived homophobia of mainstream rap. Juba Kalamka has been rapping since 1988 and worked with multiple music groups in Chicago in the early ’90s. Kalamka even-

22 THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE • SEPTEMBER 10, 2012

tually became fed up with his personal dishonesty regarding his sexuality, which drove him to move to San Francisco in 2000 where he formed the homo-hop group Deep Dickollective, or DDC, with Tim’m West and Phillip Atiba Goff. “I got to a point, I was kind of on the edge of coming out; I was married, had a kid,” Kalamka said. “I really didn’t feel like I had a space to talk about the stuff that was going on with me.” Kalamka explained that DDC did not set out to change popular opinion about homo-hop, but to poke fun at the lack of recognition of the genre. “We’re really doing some parodic black theater combined with hip-hop and poetry,” Kalamka said. “Even when I was doing DDC, there was no point at which I harbored any notion of that particular project becoming some kind of mainstream phenomenon. That wasn’t my intent.” Eventually, DDC became a serious, sociallyconscious rap collective that helped pave the way for future queer hip-hop artists by directly addressing homophobia, racism and sexism. Kalamka helped produce PeaceOut WORLD, the first public homo-hop festival, which ran from 2001-2007 and gathered known and unknown LGBT rappers and disc jockeys from around the world. Kalamka said the queer hip-hop genre has since become more mainstream, primarily because some LGBT emcees aren’t trying to make a statement. They strive for fame and success just like anyone pursuing a career, he said. “I think I was a little naive and disappointed,” he said. “I had this idea that

there were people who were participating in [homo-hop] for more than just, ‘I happen to be queer, and I’m experiencing this homophobia.’” As an openly gay artist, Kalamka said he is aware of many record labels’ practice of tricking artists into believing they will be able to be true to themselves and then forcing them to conform to mainstream expectations once they’re signed. “This is about money,” Kalamka said. “If you’ve got $50 and the person who signed you has $50 million, who has the power in that setup?” Tessa Hall, assistant program director of music for Clear Channel Communications and a radio host at Washington D.C. station, HOT 99.5, said introducing anything unconventional to Top 40 radio is difficult, if not impossible. Hall said much of the music considered for radio is provided by major record labels that have groomed their stable of artists to appeal to the mass market. “The mainstream audience has already been fit into a nice little mold,” she said. “You pretty much know if [a song] is going to be a hit if it talks about this, that, or the other, because that’s what everybody’s used to.” New York-based artist Luke Caswell, who performs under the name Cazwell and is considered a leading figure in homo-hop, said he disaffiliated himself from mainstream hip-hop at the start of his career when the industry rejected him because of his sexuality. “There are unspoken rules to hip-hop as a culture, one [being] you can’t be a fag,”

Cazwell said. “When I first started my career, I was in a rap group, and all I desperately wanted was to be accepted. But I came to the conclusion that no matter how good I was, I was still gay, so it didn’t really matter. Straight people in hip-hop really don’t want to have anything to do with gay people for the most part. Until recently, there’s been major association issues.” Cazwell said he paradoxically began to create a name for himself once he bowed to the industry’s unwritten rules against homosexuality and left the hip-hop scene altogether. After performing as an opening act for Lady Gaga, Cazwell was featured on her no. 1 hit, “Just Dance” in 2009. In August 2010, Cazwell released the song “Ice Cream Truck,” and its homoerotic music video went viral with more than 1 million views on YouTube in one week. Cazwell now holds a prominent place in the dance/club scene and performs in clubs worldwide. “Rather than getting a culture to accept me, I just created my own scene and my own sound and had people come to me,” he said. “I actually wasn’t expecting [the widespread success], which is unusual because I’m always expecting to be a huge hit. But sometimes you come up with really great things if you’re in the mindset that you don’t care what anyone thinks.” Other LGBT artists say they’ve seen a shift in the industry. Lashunda Nicole Flowers, frontwoman of the lesbian hip-hop group Yo! Majesty, said most mainstream hip-hop is simply stolen from underground musicians. “Mark my words, this Frank Ocean guy came out, and we’re gonna start seeing a lot more of these artists come out

of the closet,” said Flowers, who is better known as Shunda K. “Being gay is popular now. It just shows how fake all these motherf-----s were.” Yo! Majesty gained a following after playing at the South by Southwest Music Festival in 2007, collaborating with producers such as Basement Jaxx and touring with Peaches, Gossip and the Brazilian new wave group CSS. Combining eyebrowraising lyrics with hip-hop, hard rock, gospel and electronic elements, Yo! Majesty harnessed a sound that was brand new to the genre. Shunda K said she struggled with her own sexuality throughout her career. She describes herself as a devout Christian and was briefly married to a man. She said she also understands the industry’s power in pressuring artists to pretend they are something they aren’t in order to increase their level of fame, even if that means faking heterosexuality. “The fans have no idea these artists are faking it to make it,” Shunda K said. “They just take their word and run with it. They’re just faking themselves for the purpose of selling records or for entertainment, but behind closed doors they’re boo’d up with the same sex.” Shunda K said Yo! Majesty’s fanbase exploded once she was true to herself and that her proudest achievement—aside from having 30,000 fans screaming her lyrics at a concert—has been making an impact on her fans and encouraging them to be themselves. “After Yo! Majesty shows, some people come up to us in tears,” she said, “Like, ‘Oh my God!

You don’t know how much you’ve impacted my life. Just because I’m gay or just because I’m a minority or a nobody, according to society, seeing you onstage tonight just made all that s--- go out the door.’ Being able to show them that you don’t have to sacrifice your integrity just to be successful is what it’s all about.” Yo! Majesty recently regrouped after a long hiatus and hopes to release a single within the next year. Shunda K said she has different values in mind this time around after witnessing record labels’ control of the industry. “Now my career is not about how much money I make, and having the fanciest cars and the best looking girls,” she said. “Now I’m going to really give you the whole truth and nothing but the truth. My eyes are wide open. I’m not being programmed to be controlled by the masters that be—the puppet masters.” Kalamka said he thinks it may be a while until there is a level playing field throughout the industry. “[We’re] waiting for an old machine that’s falling apart, that’s still trying to maintain a space in a hypercapitalistc paradigm that’s ultimately a racist paradigm, ultimately misogynistic and sexist and homophobic and transphobic,” Kalamka said. “Waiting for your opportunity to be a part of that context on the basis of whatever parts of yourself you can cover that will normalize you so they will accept you is blaringly and incredibly dishonest, if not ridiculous. I would also say that it’s not something I’m waiting for.” eornberg@chroniclemail.com

THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE 23


24 THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE

OCTOBER 15, 2012

Rambunctious Rocky riles up Congress Theater

Concert Review

A$AP Rocky, Danny Brown, Schoolboy Q bring forth unruly evening by Emily Ornberg Assistant Arts & Culture Editor HELICOPTER

SOUND

EFFECTS,

operatic scales and the strumming of a harp underlined A$AP Rocky’s cracked voice as he opened his Oct. 11 show in the dimmed Congress Theater, telling the audience, “Welcome to my world.” Rocky appeared onstage 56 minutes after his scheduled set time. Donning a bright orange ski mask, he greeted the rowdy crowd apologetically. “We started late due to some technical difficulties … but I’m here nonetheless, so get ready for a crazy show.” Crazy may have been an understatement. By the end of the show, Rocky’s rap collective, A$AP Mob, was recklessly leaping around the venue while security chased audience members around as if they were working a poorly run day care. A$AP Rocky, who hails from New York, refers to himself most often as “that Pretty Mother F----r,” and raps that the “only thing bigger than my ego is my mirror,” in his single “Wassup.” But Rocky has justifiable success to back up such confidence. With a $3 million record deal with RCA Records and continual radio airplay after the success of his pioneering mixtape, “LongLiveA$AP,” he proves to be one of the most successful members of his collective. He performed at this summer’s Pitchfork Music Festival, appeared as a guest rapper during Rihanna’s performance of her hit single “Cockiness (Love it)” at MTV’s Video Music Awards and was nominated for six BET awards, including “Best New Artist.” His first studio album, “LiveLoveA$AP,” is set to drop Oct. 31. Though transfixing productions make him one of today’s most prominent hip-hop innova-

James Foster THE CHRONICLE

A$AP Rocky brought his A$AP Mob along on his 2012 North American Tour, LiveLoveA$AP, a precursor to his new album out Oct. 31.

tors, his raps are mainly about women, weed or women with weed. That said, A$AP’s concept for the LongLiveA$AP tour may have been overreaching. The stage backdrop displayed the famous World War II photograph “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” except the flag was both upside down and black and white. “The flags represent the battle,” A$AP said in between songs, as if to justify a school art project. “A battle because we’re misunderstood … but

we ain’t fighting this battle alone!” Throughout their set, the A$AP Mob waved a physical representation of the black and white flag as they needlessly skipped around the stage. Rocky didn’t fully connect with the audience at times and became distracted when the A$AP Mob joined him onstage. Alternative rappers Danny Brown and ScHoolboy Q were the rousing opening acts. Although the three artists vary greatly in hip-hop style, the mixture

of different performance types showed that new-generation rap has a bright future. Brown, a whimsical up-andcomer from Detroit, began his segment—which proved to be the night’s best set—as the crowd was filing in. He played tracks from his most popular album “XXX,” which was named 2011’s “Best Hip-Hop Album Of The Year” by SPIN magazine. The early evening’s energy was pumped up by the crowd pleasers “Blunt After Blunt” and “Bruis-

3

er Brigade.” However, the venue’s poor sound mixing completely undermined some of Brown’s signature techno production and gritty, futuristic additives. Brown’s enthusiastic stage presence kept the audience fully engaged despite the lo-fi sound. His large tongue pushed through a toothless grin, hanging on his chin in between verses while his lanky arms flailed around raucously. Brown’s goofy face paired with his asymmetrical perm kept the audience cheering while he boasted about his looks in “The Black Brad Pitt.” ScHoolboy Q followed Brown, and although his music is more introspective, he played upbeat crowd pleasers such as “Nightmare on Figg St.” and “There He Go.” Though equally as captivating as Brown, ScHoolboy Q kept obnoxiously interrupting the flow of his set by sitting down for intermittent chats with his disc jockey after each song to ask the audience what he should play next or how well he was performing. Rocky’s performance was most enticing once his Mob left the stage. He performed a few tracks from his acclaimed “LiveLoveA$AP.” “Wassup,” “Purple Swag” and the best performance in his set, “Brand New Guy” with ScHoolboy Q, established his solo talent despite a set cut short by the venue’s 10 p.m. curfew. As rowdy as they may be A$AP Mob ensured a peaceful show. Immediately after egging the crowd on with their famous track “Coke and White Bitches,” the lights went dim as A$AP asked the audience to pray. The Mob then gawkishly clarified they love “all types of bitches, no matter if you white, black or purple.” Bizarrely enough, the crowd appreciated the group’s attempt to mix equal parts hipster and hood fans. Visit ColumbiaChronicle.com for additional photos of the show. eornberg@chroniclemail.com

5

2

4

6 James Foster THE CHRONICLE

1 24 THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE • OCTOBER 15, 2012

1. ScHoolboy Q lights up during his marijuana anthem, “iBetiGotSumWeed.” 2. A$AP Rocky begins his militaristic set with his symbolic upside-down black and white American flag. 3. The Congress Theater audience soaks in ScHoolboy Q’s set. 4. Danny Brown begins his an energetic set. 5. Brown consistently engages the crowd. 6. Rocky reveals his previously masked face.


NOVEMBER 12, 2012

A&C

THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE 27

Underground hip-hop veteran visits Chicago Doomtree founding father discusses career, state of music industry

by Emily Ornberg

Assistant Arts & Culture Editor “RAP WON’T SAVE you,” the man-

tra of the Twin Cities rap collective Doomtree, is repeated in song lyrics and printed on all of its merchandise. Founding member Andrew Sims, however, credits rap for much of his success. Listening to mainstream and underground hip-hop artists, such as the Wu-Tang Clan, helped him cope during a tough childhood, when his musician parents often left Sims to watch over himself and his younger brother. Sims collected cassette mixtapes of hip-hop music that he traded to kids at school and kept them hidden because of his parents’ disapproval. Eventually, Sims found his own talent through rhyming, writing and experiencing in the Minnesota hip-hop scene. At Hopkins High School, he met local producer and rapper Stefon Alexander, also known as P.O.S., who let him record in his in-house studio and sold him beats for $30 a piece. “I really started doing talent shows in coffee shops and basements, whatever I could do as a teenager,” Sims said. “Then in my young 20’s, it was just about if I could get a show, I would do the show. I had no level of expectation about getting money, or that I was going to get famous. I just wanted to do it.” Now, Sims is touring a few Midwestern cities to keep his name out there. At his intimate show at The Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace St., on Nov. 8, Sims hung out in the crowd during opening numbers, worked his merch table and met with fans. “That’s how I get most of my joy, from playing shows [and] meeting people,” he said. “I think my show is improving so much everytime I go out there, I get more and more excited to go back out.” In 2002, after slowly picking up other local Twin Cities rappers, Sims and P.O.S.’s collaboration grew into the seven-piece collective Doomtree, and began to expand into a business-savvy operation, creating their own label and steering their own career. In addition to Sims and P.O.S., Lazerbeak, Dessa, Mike Mictlan,

Photos James Foster THE CHRONICLE

Minnesota rapper Andrew Sims performs at The Abbey Pub, 3420 W. Grace St., Nov. 8. He said working in the Twin Cities hip-hop community is a healthily competitive field full of artists who constantly raise the bar.

producers and disc jockeys that is small enough to allow for friendly competition. Fostered by local indie hip-hop label Rhymesayers, artists such as Atmosphere and Eyedea & Abilities have emerged from the scene with successful careers. Doomtree received its fair share of exposure, when it performed to a crowd of thousands at Lollapalooza this summer. Alongside other artists from the Twin Cities, however, Doomtree’s members made it clear they weren’t pursuing their careers for materialistic reasons. “I had very low expectations about what to get out of shows other than I loved playing shows,” Sims said. “It was really a humble way to approach [our career], and it made a lot of people in the city really appreciate the type of mentality that I think Doomtree had toward the way we did shows—of course it was for free, of course we’re on first, and of course we’re one of five acts on the bill.” Minneapolis hip-hop is known for its artistic, innovative backtracks and introspective and philosophical lyrics. Sims’ lyrics categorically push boundaries, using kinetic wordplay on themes such as

I had no level of expectation about getting money, or that I was going to get famous. I just wanted to do it. – Andrew Sims

Paper Tiger and Cecil Otter make up the collective that is part of the grassroots Minneapolis indie hip-hop scene. Minnesota’s hip-hop community functions as a tightly knit family, and encompasses a pool of rappers,

commercialism and political cynicism. He proves he is constantly searching for a way out of the trappings that define the modern lifestyle. The track “One Dimensional Man” defines his relationship with complacent liberals: “You did your

part, you gave your hundred bucks to NPR / You joined the co-op now, bought the hybrid car.” It is all said in satirical fun, as Sims himself votes Democrat and drives a hybrid. During his Chicago show, Sims brought up his paradoxical feelings about the presidential election. “I found myself pretty excited on Tuesday … but our country still has a lot of work to do,” he said. He later implied he was disappointed with the government. Sims added that even though he gives his audience an enjoyable experience, he likes to strike a nerve at the same time. “I try and [perform] in a way that is still fun for me and hopefully for the audience,” he said. “But I’m not just talking about swag the whole time. I give you a little bit to chew on while you’re throwing up your drink in the corner.”

Sims credits Doomtree’s survival to being able to adapt to change. He doesn’t generally have a static business plan or model, though he would never recommend anyone start a record label in the current industry. “Today, it’s a terrible business to try and get into,” he said. “The idea of what a record label is going to be in the future [will] be a moving thing as well. I don’t think even the major [labels] are going to survive in a 10-year scheme. They’re going to have to figure out what to do to provide additional services other than just be the bank for artists to put their record out.” Being in the scene for more than a decade and watching the industry start to crumble left him feeling conflicted, he said. He’s thankful the playing field has been leveled so his fellow independent musicians

can sell more records. However, Sims said top-selling records aren’t making as much money as they used to. “What’s lasted is that people say, ‘Now a licensing opportunity; sell your song to Pepsi,” Sims said. “I think Pepsi should stick to selling Pepsi, and if it helps that they have a song in [their commercials], that’s cool. But as far as an artist relying on Pepsi for their rent, that’s going to be a tricky spot to be in.” Sims is currently working on another album and visiting his favorite cities across the country. He said he will be back in Chicago with Doomtree in December. “As far as the short-term,” he said, “you’ll find me playing, making music [and] playing rap shows.” eornberg@chroniclemail.com THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE 27


Tattoos

22 THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE

OCTOBER 8, 2012

OCTOBER 8, 2012

written by

photos by

A&C

THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE 23

design by

Emily Ornberg AJ Abelman Heidi Unkefer

How permanent tattoos may (temporarily) alter your career

F

ashion designer Julia Handleman has made her dreams come true. For several years she climbed the corporate ladder, designing for The North Face, Old Navy and Land’s End. And she did it all with visible henna-inspired tattoos across her face, neck, hands and arms. Ink is now showing up in the next generation of white-collar lawyers, accountants and business executives. Thirty-six percent of 18–25-year-olds and 40 percent of 26–40-year-olds have at least one tattoo, according to a 2006 Pew Research study. More professionals may be sporting tattoos, but there is still some friction between visible ink and the workplace. “I have strived to have a corporate career and not have to make a trade-off [between my job and my tattoos],” Handleman said. “I hope to someday become a director, then a [vice president]. To have those accomplishments and not sacrificing being heavily tattooed will be very satisfying for me.” Kristen Schilt, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, said that overall, the stereotypes associated with tattoos have shifted during the last century. However, she added that it is difficult to change the perception of something once viewed so negatively. “Historically, tattoos were associated with deviant populations, and it’s really changed since the ’60s and ’70s,” Schilt said. “We are a culture

22 THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE •OCTOBER 8, 2012

of individuals, and people want to express their individual selves. Tattoos are one way to do this.” As more people get tattooed, the notion of what they say about a person must be redefined, according to Bob Jones, founder of Insight Studios tattoo parlor, 1062 N. Milwaukee Ave. He said “young, careless rebels” are not his only customers anymore. “We had an 84-year-old woman [who] got tattooed a while ago,” Jones said. “It’s no longer about smuggling guns, getting on your Harley to go to the tattoo shop or slamming shots of Jack Daniels while Johnny Cash is kicking some guys ass in the back alley because he’s looking at you funny. Those days are over, which is very, very good.” Jones said when he first started in the body modification industry in 1995, there were approximately nine other shops in Chicago. Now, there are more than 100. Tattooing equipment and the knowledge of how to use it are far more accessible than they used to be, which he said makes talented artists who do affordable tattoos easier to find. However, it is still unclear where the line is drawn between professional appearance and individual expression when a tattooed generation has to apply for jobs. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, employers can impose dress codes and appearance policies, as long as they

do not discriminate against a person’s race, religion, age, national origin or gender. But companies can legally require employees to hide their tattoos. If this isn’t possible, it could keep an applicant from getting hired. In cases brought to the EEOC, employees have argued that denying them the opportunity to display their tattoos at work is discrimination. In 2005, the EEOC required the Red Robin restaurant chain to pay $150,000 to a tattooed employee and make substantial policy changes to settle a religious discrimination lawsuit. The company was charged with refusing to accommodate employee Edward Rangel, who was fired for tattoos he received during a religious rite of passage. Throughout the suit, Red Robin maintained that allowing any exceptions to its dress code policy would undermine its “wholesome image.” Though Jones personally has multiple tattoos, he said he understands that no matter what, the employer makes the decisions. “I see no reason why an ink spot on someone’s body would change why they get hired or not,” Jones said. “But as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s their job and it’s their company. So if you want that job, you have to play by their rules.” In corporate America’s more conservative industries, such as banking, law and insurance, tattoos and body piercings can hurt applicants’ chances of landing a job or advancing their career, said Untrunnis Brandon,

founder of The Brandon Law Firm. He said these companies depend heavily on a professional image that may be compromised by visible tattoos. Brandon said his company has a strict dress code because his employees are the face of his business when appearing in court. He has found that a distracting tattoo can draw a judge or jury’s attention away from an argument. It is difficult to consider prejudice against tattoos being on par with racial or gender discrimination because body modification is a choice, while the others are not, according to Brandon. “People have hang-ups,” he said. “Because you are a certain race or you wear your hair a certain way, people are going to pre-judge you anyway. But you don’t want to give [people] any added incentive, especially when you want [them] to listen to our words. At some point, we all in society have to take responsibility, and I have to note that if [you] do a certain thing to [your] body, it limits [your] options.” Jones said before people get a visible tattoo, they should know what they will be signing up

for. In Illinois, Insight Studios is the only business other than a plastic surgeon’s office that legally offers laser tattoo removal. Jones said approximately 25 percent of the customers who receive the treatment do so to further their careers. “We had one guy who was lasering his whole sleeve off because he was going to be a lawyer, and he just didn’t want to have it anymore,” Jones said. “I get it. You need to eat, plain and simple. Ultimately that’s the most important thing.” Handleman said she believes having both a successful career – Bob Jones and visible tattoos makes her an ambassador and role model for members of the body modification community. “There’s a handful of us that have very corporate careers,” Handleman said. “There are doctors, there are lawyers, but you don’t really hear about it. So to be publicly visible [and show that] we can do this is definitely something that’s important to me.” Handleman attributes her success to the approachable way she presents herself professionally and the fact that she works in a creative industry.

as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s their job and it’s their company. So if you want that job, you have to play by their rules.”

“It’s a catch-22, because on one hand, I would definitely tell people … that visible tattoos do have the potential to hold you back,” Handleman said. “But I also think if it’s part of who you are, it’s not really a choice on some level. Because of my tattoos, I may have had to work harder.” Cultural norms are not consistent from place to place, so the level of tattoo acceptance in the workplace varies, Handleman explained. She said intolerance is rare in urban environments, but visible tattoos are more taboo in rural and traditional areas. “People get this skewed idea of acceptance,” Handleman said. “Living in Chicago, tattooed people might perceive that it’s more acceptable than it is if you lived in a more conservative place. But if you go two hours outside of a major city, it can become very conservative very quickly. Your career may take you to more conservative places that you can’t anticipate.” With so many people—young and old—inking their skin, Schilt said rules against visible tattoos in the workplace may spark a social revolution. “I think what sociology teaches us is that change is always possible,” Schilt said. “So it’s perfectly feasible that this is something that a social movement could organize around. There’s just going to have to be a lot of changes in people’s thinking.”

eornberg@chroniclemail.com

THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE 23


22 THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE

NOVEMBER 5, 2012

NOVEMBER 5, 2012

Written by: Emily Ornberg Designed by: Michael Scott Fischer

Artists explore link between drugs, creativity THE FIRST DRAWING in Bryan Lewis Saunders’ sketchbook was a self-portrait created for a design course during his sophomore year at East Tennessee State University. When he was finished, he decided the remaining class assignments were pointless because he had discovered what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Since March 30, 1995, Saunders, 43, has created more than 8,700 self-portraits using varied textures, tools and media. He said he constantly experiments with his self-portraits, which he makes daily, pushing himself to use new life experiences as inspiration his art. In 2001, Saunders stumbled upon a reference book of drugs while living in government housing in Tennessee. Another resident told him he could find all the narcotics listed in the book somewhere inside the building.

“I came home, and I thought I’d take a different one of those drugs every day to see what those people are all about,” Saunders said. For the next 11 days, he ingested or inhaled a total of 50 drugs. He used substances such as absinthe, cocaine, tetrafluorocthane—or huffing gas—and Xanax while creating his self-portraits, which document his altered state of mind. The portrait series provides insight into the psychology of drug use. The bath salts portrait is distorted and eerie; the cocaine drawing is dark, jagged and chaotic; and the dimethyltryptamine picture is colorful, geometric and bizarre. But the drawings all have one thing in common—they portray a balding, middle-aged man with glasses. The series went viral in January 2011, and while some people were inspired by his work, Saunders said he still receives death

22 THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE • NOVEMBER 5, 2012

threats from those who believe he promotes drug abuse. “It bothers me because they act like they know me, and they think I’m the biggest drug addict in the world,” Saunders said. “But if you look at all the 8,700 self-portraits [I’ve done], there’s maybe like 50 of them on drugs. I don’t do drugs. But if you type my name in Google, it just automatically comes up [next to] ‘drugs’ with millions of hits.” It is well-documented that artists such as Salvador Dalí, Charles Dickens and Jimi Hendrix used drugs while producing their work. Francis Crick was allegedly consuming low doses of LSD when he discovered the double helix structure of the DNA molecule. Steve Jobs said LSD was one of the “most important” experiences of his life. Influential bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones used copious amounts

of narcotics while making music in the ’60s. But the use of drugs to stimulate creativity has been a consistent controversy in the art world. Louis Silverstein, a professor in the Humanities, History and Social Sciences Department, who published “Deep Spirit & Great Heart: Living in Marijuana Consciousness” in 2012, explained that drug use to spur creativity dates back to primitive societies. People ingested psychedelic or hallucinogenic drugs to see images, communicate with deities or unravel the mysteries of the world. They would then use their tools to share their experiences through art. Silverstein said those who take mind-altering substances often enter states of being that allow them to express themselves in a way that wouldn’t be possible while sober.

“My personal take on it [is that] if there’s a substance that can allow a person to get in touch with their artistic selves or their higher selves, and that substance is not inherently harmful and the people who use that substance [are using it] in a disciplined, respectful way, why not?” Silverstein said. Columbia is a dry and drug-free institution, but that doesn’t mean substance abuse is not an issue on campus. According to the Columbia’s Office of Research, Evaluation and Planning, 22,578 students attended the college over three semesters in 2011 and 4,969 lived on campus. The number of liquor law violations on campus increased from 257 in 2010 to 358 in 2011, according to the 2012 Annual Crime Statistics & Fire Safety Report, and drug abuse violations on campus increased by 23 for a total of 176. According to the report, there were a total of 12 drug-related arrests in student residence centers and another 43 on public property. Jack, a sophomore audio arts and acoustics major, was caught drinking alcohol by residence assistants last year drinking in the Dwight Lofts, 642 S. Clark St. However, he said the experience hardly changed his on-campus use of banned substances. “[Getting caught] was genuinely not frightening at all,” said Jack, who did not want to reveal his real name. “It’s almost like a formality or a joke.” Substance abuse on college campuses is a nationwide issue. Approximately half of full-time college students binge drink or illegally use drugs at least once a month, according to a 2007 study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. From 1993 to 2005, the most recent years that data is available, the number of college students who abused opioids like Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin increased 343 percent; the abuse of stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall increased 93 percent; use of anti-anxiety medication like Xanax and Valium jumped 450 percent; and use of sedatives like Nembutal and Seconal increased 225 percent. The number of college students’ who use marijuana daily more than doubled to 310,000 during the same period, and cocaine, heroin and other illegal drug use went up 52 percent to 636,000, according to the study. Almost 38 percent of collegeadministrators who participated in the study said the reason for increased drug use is the public perception that substance use by college students is a normal rite of passage. It shouldn’t matter if the ends justify the means in regards to art, Saunders said. He said though he believes everyone should be open to every type of influence and inspiration, there will always be people who scrutinize artistic inspiration. “People always seem to care about how art was created … It shouldn’t matter,” Saunders said. “In art school, when they showed me a Jackson Pollock or something, somebody would say ‘Wasn’t he drunk? Didn’t he go to a mental hospital?’ They always got caught up in a sensational-type drama.” Anna Evans, a junior art & design major, said when she thinks about drug use for the sake of creativity, she thinks of musicians or painters—not graphic designers. She said she doesn’t use drugs to produce her art because she believes working meticulously on a computer while under the influence

would be difficult. Evans said she thinks the use of substances to spawn creativity is cheating. “I feel like if you can’t do your art without the help of drugs, it’s not 100 percent creative,” Evans said. “If you can’t perform [sober], it’s not you.” Jack, however, as a music producer, said marijuana is extremely beneficial for the creative process. “When I’m trying to come up with ideas and what kind of song I’m trying to make, I usually smoke [marijuana],” he said. Although artists may use drugs to augment creativity, occasional drug use can turn into abuse and addiction. Untreated mental illness and drug addiction affected the lives of many prominent artists including Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In a July 2011 article for Scientific American magazine, David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, explained that the link between drug use and addiction is connected to “prerequisites” for creativity. After conducting studies on the heritability of addiction, Linden found that 40 percent of a person’s predisposition to substance addiction is genetically determined. Although there is no single “addiction gene,” the known genes cause a decreased signaling of the neurotransmitter dopamine for pleasure and reward. Through brain-imaging studies and biochemistry tests in rats and monkeys, Linden found that addicts categorically crave pleasure more often but feel it less intensely. This reduced receptivity to dopamine may prompt drug-addled artists to create more work, Linden said. He found that carriers of these genetic variants are more likely to take risks, seek out new experiences and act compulsively. Though none of these traits are directly related to creativity, Linden said they may lead artists to push themselves further and motivate them to show their projects to others. Christopher Kingston, an intake coordinator at New Hope Recovery, a Chicago addiction treatment center, said many artists in treatment feel they won’t be as creative if they give up drugs or alcohol. “From what we’ve seen, that might be the case at first because they’re so used to using [drugs] in order to be creative,” Kingston said. “But after longer care with these individuals, they realize they can be more creative when they can be

A&C

THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE 23

more sober.” He said constant substance abuse will ultimately hinder artistic innovation because it impairs judgment and may cause brain damage. “Just like anything, drugs and alcohol are going to get in the way of [creativity] eventually,” Kingston said. “I’m not going to say that it doesn’t help one be creative, but your full potential for anything isn’t there when you’re using drugs and drinking daily.” Saunders said some drugs, such as the tranquilizer Seroquell, led to some of the worst experiences of his life. “The psych meds are probably the most treacherous of all drugs,” Saunders said. “They’re the most evil things on earth, practically, because they separate your mind from your body.” Saunders said his drug experimentation led to extensive brain damage and hallucinations, and he had to check himself into a mental hospital to recover. Whether or not artists use substances, Saunders said everyone is unique in their quest for inspiration. He said he has trained his brain to take inspiration from anything, not just the influence of drugs. “Everyone has their own way of seeing [things], because we’re constantly getting bombarded with phenomena every day— audio, visual; every sense is coming into our nervous system,” Saunders said. “My way is to put the world into myself. I just try to do it different every day and make it more true to me.” eornberg@chroniclemail.com

THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE 23


26 THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE

SEPTEMBER 24, 2012

“LIKE” THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE ON FACEBOOK TO LISTEN TO WEEKLY SPOTIFY PLAYLISTS

Favorite ’90s songs EMILY ORNBERG, ASSISTANT ARTS & CULTURE EDITOR

BRIAN DUKERSCHEIN, COPY CHIEF YOU OUGHTA KNOW// Alanis Morissette SEXX LAWS // Beck OUT OF MY HEAD // Fastball YOU GET WHAT YOU GIVE // New Radicals

CHECK THE RHIME // A Tribe Called Quest CELEBRITY SKIN // Hole LUV ME, LUV ME // Shaggy feat. Samantha Cole HOW BIZARRE // OMC

ZACH STEMERICK, ART DIRECTOR

LINDSEY WOODS, MANAGING EDITOR BRAIN STEW // Green Day FAKE PLASTIC TREES // Radiohead NO SHELTER // Rage Against the Machine GOING AWAY TO COLLEGE // Blink-182

TWO PRINCESS// Spin Doctors TEARIN’ UP MY HEART //N*Sync DON’T SPEAK // No Doubt TUBTHUMPING // Chumbawamba

AUDIOFILE

Imagine Dragons find their ‘time’ by Emily Ornberg

Assistant Arts & Culture Editor FROM HUMBLE NEST beginnings

playing cover songs at local casinos to a nomination at the MTV Video Music Awards, Las Vegas-based indie-rock quartet Imagine Dragons may seem like an overnight success. But after three years of hashing out their sound, that is not the case. Blending synth-based pop production with British-alternative inspirations and emotional lyrics, Imagine Dragons, composed of frontman Dan Reynolds, guitarist Wayne Sermon, bassist Ben McKee and drummer Daniel Platzman, have proved their formula successful by placing near the top of multiple radio format charts. After releasing four EPs, the group signed with Interscope Records, a subsidiary of major record company Universal Music Group. The group’s latest single, “It’s Time,” was featured on the season premiere of “Glee,” in the trailer for the highly anticipated “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and at the Apple iPhone 5 launch event on Sept. 12. The song’s music video was nominated for a VMA on Sept. 6., and their latest album, “Night Visions,” has already reached No. 2 on the Billboard Top 200 chart. The Chronicle sat down with Sermon to discuss the group’s journey to fame, inspirations and the concept of “selling out.” The Chronicle: What has it

been like adjusting to fame so rapidly? Wayne Sermon: It’s surreal, but to us it feels natural. We’ve been a band for three years and started out playing a lot of casino gigs in Las Vegas. To make ends meet we would play covers. Since then we’ve been building on that. We wanted it to be as organic as it could possibly be. It feels good to have all that work pay off. We feel very fortunate and lucky because in this industry there’s always a little luck involved. A lot of artists, especially in the alternative genre, can get a negative reputation once they’ve hit it big. Are you percieved by your fans as selling out? We haven’t gotten a lot of that yet, or at least I haven’t been aware of it. I don’t read online stuff that much— it’s probably a subconscious way to protect my ego. But from what I can tell, it seems like people are, for the most part, happy about the way things are going for us. What are your inspirations? The new album is called “Night Visions,” and that title kind of represents where these songs came from. I struggle with insomnia, and I have since I was 12. And Dan struggles from anxiety and spends a lot of late nights [awake], and that’s when a

26 THE COLUMBIA CHRONICLE • SEPTEMBER 24, 2012

lot of these songs get written—late in the night. A lot of the guitar riffs I came up with were at 4 a.m. when no one else was awake, when I felt isolated, like [when] I was the most alone and I could actually create. What does your songwriting process consist of? It usually starts with either me or Dan. We’re both into gear, recording and producing ourselves. From that, we bring the demo to the band and they hash it out and make it from a demo that I do into an Imagine Dragons song. They’re very different things. Something that Dan or I produce goes through a metamorphosis when it gets to a full band. When we can all own parts of the song, that’s when it really takes on the Imagine Dragons sound. How did it feel playing Riot Fest? It’s been interesting. There are a lot of characters here. I don’t think there’s a festival like it. We’re not really sure how we fit in with some of the other bands, but I think it works. People showed up and they seemed to enjoy the show, and I think that’s all what really matters. What’s next for Imagine Dragons? We’re on tour now with Awolnation, and that’s going really well. And after that it looks like we’re going to Europe. After that, who knows? Maybe we’ll get a break and maybe we won’t. It’s a good thing, not having a break. The label is pushing us, and we are pushing ourselves. Visit ImagineDragonsMusic.com for music and touring date info. eornberg@chroniclemail.com

Courtesy INTERSCOPE PUBLICITY

From left: Ben McKee, Dan Reynolds, Daniel Platzman and Wayne Sermon make up the band Imagine Dragons. The group played at Riot Fest in Humboldt Park in Chicago on Sept. 16.



Works Sampled