Tuesday, 17 May 2016

History is happening: Juice Rap News and the subversion of reported news

Originally published at ABC Arts Online, September 2014

Chuck D of Public Enemy once famously said, during the group's 80s pomp, that rap was the "CNN of the ghetto". His words were a reference to his pioneering crew's music, and that of others, being both a voice and a source of cultural context for the alienated and disadvantaged in black communities in America and beyond. This can also be interpreted as a damning indictment of mainstream news, preoccupied with both economic power and frivolity, and unconcerned with minorities and injustice and, therefore some might say, the reality of western, capitalist society. Hip-hop had to be the CNN of the ghetto, as the actual CNN and its ilk were remote and disinterested.

The team behind Melbourne-based Juice Rap News is far removed from Public Enemy in countless ways, but they too recognise that mainstream news has become an intellectually moribund, dumbed-down expression of corporate interests and conservatism, peddled in a fragmented way and reduced to fit within a soundbite culture and the demands of advertising.

Juice Rap News, a collaboration between historian and author Giordano Nanni and spoken word poet Hugo Farrant, is a series of monthly YouTube videos, each tackling a particular current affair, where the 'news' is rapped. Dripping with satire and an anarchic, gleeful sense of irreverence, the show is a comic enterprise designed to stimulate and challenge in a way the majority of news outlets cannot, through a medium that offers a unique energy and conciseness. Episodes are rarely longer than seven minutes.

"If you look at a political musician like Bob Dylan," says rapper Farrant, "the amount of information he gets across in 'Hurricane' for example takes him about eight minutes. In a rap song that would be done in three minutes and it would kick way more ass."

Nanni, of Italian origin, and Farrant, who grew up in Dorset, UK met in 2008, with the first episode appearing in October 2009. Nanni, a part-time academic at the University of Melbourne, had been pondering such a project for some time in the wake of being wowed by the potential of YouTube.

"By 2007 it was evident that the internet had lived up to and exceeded all expectations in terms of revolutionising the way we learn and share information," says Nanni. "For me, this was a process of revelations of almost biblical proportions. It became apparent that the next step was to contribute to it by taking part and creating and uploading meaningful content. I'd always wanted to do a kind of journalistic endeavour and comment on current affairs, but not in a traditional way."

"It wasn't until I met Hugo that I saw there was huge potential there because he's such a master of words and rhyme, so the idea became plausible from a practical perspective. I had a lot of ideas relating to content and it was Hugo who brought the talent in terms of form."

Farrant adds, "We have a shared love of comedy, especially with a political bent, so we bonded over people like George Carlin and Bill Hicks, the greats of conscious humour."

To say that Nanni is the project's conscience and Farrant its face and voice is probably reductive: Nanni portrays one of the show's most entertaining characters in Australian 'bogan' Ken Oathcarn, while Farrant is just as dedicated to the Rap News philosophy, and is engaged and erudite in conversation. But it's true that each partner provides certain ingredients, with Nanni generally responsible for establishing the show's mission and tone, and Farrant an accomplished wordsmith and skilful performer.
As well as Oathcarn, Juice Rap News features characters Terence Moonseed, the resident eccentric conspiracy theorist; General Baxter, the crude warmonger representing military and oil interests, and Brian Washington, a withering take on the typical news anchor of major news corporations.

The show's anchor is one Robert Foster (played by Farrant), the show's often-bemused moral centre designed to represent the 'everyman' perspective. He introduces each episode and topic, and gives an impassioned summary in conclusion in a more earnest and sincere style, which the pair refers to as 'the juice'.

The show's guiding ideology, as often expressed by Foster, is directed by two main priorities, according to Nanni. The first is a desire to put news in historical, holistic context and acknowledge the binding forces that draw seemingly disparate events together, as well as the potential consequences surrounding today's most contentious issues, according to historical precedent.

"'History is happening' is the show's tagline," Nanni says. "Robert Foster seeks to raise our consciousness about our present moment in order to remind us that we are making history right now."

"How valuable would it be if the news, instead of telling us all these seemingly disjointed soundbites of information about climate change, some protest or some distant war, was more far-reaching historically, giving us a more universal outlook on the human project, joining all these dots together and reminding us where we are heading. Because we can plot where we're heading based on our historical track record."

The other vital component in the show's philosophy is one close to Nanni's heart. As the author of two books, The Colonisation of Time: Ritual and Resistance in the British Empire, and Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, he ensures the show is strong on indigenous issues and colonialism, both in Australia ("the frontlines of the colonial project") and beyond. "A lot of the issues that affect this country cannot be understood without taking it back to when the First Fleet arrived.

"But extending that is the idea of what it means to be indigenous, and at some point so-called non-indigenous people need to reclaim some sense of indigeneity if we want to avoid acting like aliens on this planet. We are behaving like aliens rather than natives, doing the kinds of things to this planet we picture aliens doing to foreign planets: ravaging, destroying and trashing them before moving on to a new planet – as we are already planning to do."

Though every episode contains excoriating lampooning and lambasting of a variety of figures and institutions, some are more spectacular than others. Memorably, Farrant provides an extraordinary turn as Hillary Clinton in episode six, on the subject of 'Cablegate', while Nanni's performance as Oathcarn in episode 11, about Australia Day, sees him lead a performance of the wickedly not-so-absurd song, 'Australia Yeah C***'.

But one episode that aired in 2013 attracted mainstream, international attention for Juice Rap News. Prior to the Australian federal election, a video appeared that depicted Julia Gillard, Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott as mad despots in a violent Game Of Thrones-style grab for power. Not only that, with Julian Assange running for the Victorian Senate with the Wikileaks Party, Nanni and Farrant managed to persuade him to don a singlet and wig, and perform a re-written version of John Farnham's 'You’re The Voice'. The appearance came about by Nanni visiting Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London and undertaking a 13-hour shoot that went on until 3am, in the back of the embassy in a room with a green screen set up for Assange's interviews. "He's a perfect Rap News candidate: he's a serious guy with a serious mission, but give him a chance to poke fun at himself and show his human side and he'll pull it off really well," says Nanni.

The video's breathtaking audacity is still striking a year on, but Assange's cameo was not received well by some major media outlets. One in particular in Australia mistook Assange's performance, which was widely reproduced without the context of the rest of the episode, as a campaign video for his Senate run, and took special offence at how Abbott was depicted (in Speedos, and declaring some less than complimentary impressions of the Australian public, to put it mildly).

"All we'd done was exaggerate certain misogynist comments," says Farrant, "which he's well-known for making in his political career, in fact you could say our portrayal was rather complimentary, since we gave Tony the requisite intelligence to construct a joke and sound funny. But we were accused of putting out misogynist content, which was a bit of a cheap shot since we were satirising the misogyny of the man himself."

"Its being reported as a campaign video got picked up in Latin America, and it got re-reported there in the Spanish language press, which led to the Ecuadorian government sending a chastising letter to Julian telling him to stop using Ecuadorian property to insult Australian politicians in campaign videos."

Another groundbreaking episode for the pair came in April of this year when, after a long period of gathering experience, information and courage, Juice Rap News covered the Israel-Palestine conflict. Nanni and Farrant enlisted Palestinian rap group DAM to provide a remarkable contribution, as well as American author and intellectual Norman Finkelstein. Nanni and Farrant deliberately weighted the episode towards Palestinian sympathies, in response to the perceived saturation of pro-Israel coverage in the mainstream media. Episode 24 also features many of the show's most cutting satirical lines, including, "Palestinian suicide homes are ramming themselves into peaceful Israeli bulldozers, " as spoken by anchor Brian Washington.

"Everyone is hearing the Israel lobby-approved version of this conflict in the nightly news," says Nanni, "so we weren't going to waste time giving it more air time. Our episode might appear one-sided, but the dominant narrative is so one-sided already, that we felt it was our role to mirror it.

"We didn’t touch the Israel-Palestine conflict for a number of years because we first wanted to establish ourselves and work out a way of pulling it off well. The last thing we wanted to do was muck it up and make things worse by not doing justice to this sensitive and little-understood topic. I really wanted this episode to be bulletproof, and was happy with how it turned out. "

It should be said that while Farrant and Nanni are responsible for the vast majority of Juice Rap News' writing and production, a loyal team is crucial to the project's output, with helpers based in Australia and overseas assisting with design, animation, props, voiceovers, acting, make-up and of course the music and beats themselves. Juice Rap News has also been translated into more than 25 languages by a group of volunteer translators around the world, leading Farrant to claim, "I believe Robert Foster is one of the most translated rappers in the history of the genre."

The next stage in their evolution is to reproduce the show live. After a successful performance at Woodford Folk Festival in 2012/13, Juice Rap News has three scheduled performances for early next year in Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne, where Farrant and Nanni will be joined by other illustrious Melbourne rappers Mantra and Grey Ghost.

The natural home for Juice Rap News remains the internet, however. And to adapt a phrase from arguably one of the godfathers of political hip-hop, Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution may not be televised, but its seeds may yet be found on YouTube.

For more information about Juice Rap News and to watch episodes, visit https://thejuicemedia.com/.

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