Before joining Mother Jones, Benjy reported for Colombia Reports while living in Medellin. He has written for PolicyMic and Wine & Bowties. A slow-travel enthusiast, Benjy also lived in Peru, where he worked in a carpentry shop.
"I'm being really ratchet right now," the up-and-coming rapper Le1f tells me over the phone. He's on a train, and I've asked him what his wildest music video fantasy would look like. He laughs, but he doesn't demur. "I don't think I'm being like Marina Abramovic, but that's totally where I want to take it: pulling strands of pearls through wounds in my body while rapping. That sounds really crackin' to be honest."
If you don't know Le1f, aka Khalif Diouf, you will. He's been making waves in the New York rap scene among queer and straight listeners alike. And for all his subversive ideas, he's got the potential for broad appeal. (Referring to him as a "gay rapper," while accurate, is a misdirection, he points out; "female rap" isn't a genre either.)
"I don't necessarily need it to be a fucking Lady Gaga," Le1f says. "But I definitely have ideas that require screens and projection and hired dancers."
Hey, Le1f's new EP dropping tomorrow, includes the single "Boom." ("How many batty boys can you fit in a jeep?") It's his first project since signing with Terrible Records, a move that establishes his position in the indie scene with labelmates like Grizzly Bear and Dev Hynes. The deal is part of a joint venture with XL recordings, which carries blockbuster names such as Thom Yorke and Vampire Weekend. "I don't necessarily need it to be a fucking Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson production," he says. "But I definitely have ideas that require screens and projection and hired dancers."
At Wesleyan University, where he majored in dance, Le1f, 24, wrote beats for Das Racist, including the track "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," which made them internet famous. But Le1f was destined to make his own mark on the widening hip-hop landscape. He has released three mixtapes, most recently Tree House, whose track "Damn Son" Pitchfork called an "unqualified banger."
When I ask Le1f for a tour of his musical influences, he narrates his version of Genesis in a matter-of-fact tone. "Music history starts in 1994 with Aaliyah. And then you put on Missy Elliott and Timbaland and that's the second day, and on the third day there was Lil' Kim and Junior Mafia. After that it's like Bjork and weird shit."
Perhaps the most unique thing about Le1f's music is it's deep sensuality in a genre that tends toward phallus comparisons, the objectification of women, and the trivialization of sex. He is at times theatrical or ironic, but the defining characteristic of his music is potency. His lush, clubby beats and agile lyrical delivery thrust him toward a trajectory of pop-rap radio play.
That's not to say his lyrics lack depth or timely social commentary. "It's my place to talk about issues within the gay community as well as gay rights," he says. "Taxi," one of the songs on his forthcoming full-length album, is about "racist gay dudes in the club" who ignore him precisely the way taxi cab drivers ignore him on the street.
"The Gaystream doesn't care about diversity," Le1f says. "I'm not going to shy away from what it feels like to be unaccepted as a gay person."
"There are two ways to tell the story. Funny or sad. Guys like it funny, with lots of gore and a grin on your face when you get to the end. Girls like it sad, with a thousand-yard stare out to the distance as you gaze upon the horrors of a war they can't quite see."
That's the beginning of "Bodies," the most darkly humorous short story in Phil Klay's debut collection, Redeployment. Klay served as a public affairs officer in the Marines during the 2007 Iraq surge, before returning to school to get his MFA at Hunter College in New York City. Among other outlets, his work has appeared in the literary magazine Granta, the New York Times, Newsweek, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. Redeployment goes on sale this week.
"'Human soup hits him right in the face, running down his mustache.'"
"Bodies" follows a young Marine who returns home after a serving in Iraq as a Mortuary Affairs Specialist, and then resorts to lies and embellishment in tackling what might be the great challenge of homecoming: how to talk to civilians about what you've been through.
Mortuary Affairs is a particularly grim assignment, which involves finding and handling soldiers' remains. When he tells his "funny" version, Klay's narrator describes an "arrogant bear" of a lieutenant colonel swaggering over to help him with a body bag: "'He was strong, I'll give him that,' I'd say. 'But the bag rips on the edge of the truck's back gate, and the skin of the hajji tears with it, a big jagged tear through the stomach. Rotting blood and fluid and organs slide out like groceries through the bottom of a wet paper bag. Human soup hits him right in the face, running down his mustache.'
"Even if it had happened, more or less, it was still total bullshit. After our deployment there wasn't anybody, not even Corporal G, who talked about the remains that way."
The difficulty Klay's characters face while trying to express their Iraq experiences sits like a lump in the reader's throat throughout the collection. But the variety of those experiences is wide, and Klay takes us to disparate corners of the armed services: from Psychological Operations to the Chaplain Corps, from the bloodthirsty and reckless to the tragicomic and absurd. I tracked Klay down recently to ask about his book and about his own experiences over there.
"There's a tendency to look at anybody who joined the military as if they underwrote everything that happened policywise"
Mother Jones: How has the literary world received you, a military man?
Phil Klay: It's a different culture. I went straight from the Marine Corps to the MFA. The way that you would express things among Marines is somewhat different than the way you're supposed to express things in a creative-writing workshop. So there was certainly an adjustment period.
MJ: What led you to join the Corps?
PK: A ton of reasons. I was in college. I was a physical guy, a boxer and rugby player. There's a tradition of public service in my family. I'm one of three boys that joined the military. My father was in the Peace Corps. I felt that whether or not the war was a good idea, you would still need good people executing US policy to try and make things turn out as well as they possibly could. There's a tendency to look at anybody who joined the military as if they underwrote everything that happened policywise. That's not really the case. I have a friend who both protested the Iraq War and joined the military, and ended up serving two deployments in Afghanistan.
MJ: Your characters have very diverse experiences and military assignments. How did you research what things were like in these various departments?
PK: As a public affairs officer, I spent a lot of time with a lot of different types of units. The variety of experience is broad, so I did as much research as I could. I wanted to get the details right, and be true to the experience, but at the end of the day I didn't want the reader to just accept everybody's story at face value.
Student protesters have filled the streets of many Venezuelan cities for the last two weeks to express their dissatisfaction with the socialist government, the deteriorating economy, and the violence that plagues the country. In the past few days the situation has worsened, as crackdowns from the National Guard and attacks from paramilitary groups have left at least six people dead so far.
Who are the protesters? Venezuela's opposition party is unified by the desire to end the reign of "chavismo," the socialist system devised by Hugo Chávez, and continued, albeit less handily, by his successor, Nicolás Maduro. The emergent leader of the protests is Leopoldo López, a Harvard-educated descendent of Simón Bolívar, and the former mayor of a Caracas municipality. He turned himself over to government forces after Maduro publicly demanded his arrest; López has called for more protests from prison. Also prominent in the opposition is María Corina Machado, a congresswoman in the National Assembly.
The protests started in the western border city of San Cristóbal, where students took to the streets on February 2 to express discontent with rampant crime. The forceful reaction of the authorities prompted other students in other cities to protest in solidarity. The protesters are largely from the middle class.
Maduro's leadership has proved ineffective, and the economic policies he inherited from Chávez, including the nationalization of many industries, have wreaked havoc on the Venezuelan economy; these days, people are struggling to find the bare necessities. The scarcity index has reached an astonishing 28 percent, meaning that toilet paper, flour, and other basics simply might not be in stock. Maduro has threatened to raise gas prices, which were kept artificially low for 15 years because increasing them is politically disastrous. Inflation has more than doubled in the past year. Finally, the insanely high homicide rate, 39 deaths per 100,000 people in 2013, has many Venezuelans fed up with the status quo.
How is the government responding? Maduro, who narrowly beat opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in the election after Chávez's March 2013 death, has swiftly cracked down on broadcast media coverage of the protests. The Colombian channel NTN24, which was covering the violence in the streets, has been taken off the air. Maduro expelled the CNN team today by revoking their press credentials.
Reports of paramilitary groups (known as colectivos), riding around on motorcycles and terrorizing protesters and civilians "tend to be exaggerated," said David Smilde, a University of Georgia sociologist and senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America who returned from Venezuela yesterday. Though it is surely happening (with low quality video evidence to back it up), "that phenomenon appeals to the middle class's worst nightmare of having these armed poor people on motorcycles."
"The bigger problem," Smilde continued, "is actually the government troops. The National Guard is the one that is doing the most violence, shooting on protesters and buildings. They tend to be very unprofessional. They don't think in terms of civilian policing, so they will often fire on people who are fleeing. These are people who are 20 to 22 years old and oftentimes they end up being violent. I don't think it's necessarily state policy to repress voters. But the state could definitely make it clearer that there should be no violence."
In a dramatic video, armed men reportedly from SEBIN, the Venezuelan intelligence agency, stormed the opposition party HQ. Reports have also surfaced of detainees being beaten, and Human Rights Watch has called for the international community to condemn the violence against protesters and journalists.
How serious is the crisis? While some residents of Venezuela's biggest cities,like Caracas, San Cristóbal, Mérida, Valencia, and Maracaibo decry the "war zone" in the streets, for many in Venezuela, life continues as normal. "From the outside it always looks like the whole country's in flames, but of course life goes on and most things are up and running," Smilde said.
What's going to happen next? So far it seems like the protests have not achieved support from the poor, who long have identified as chavistas. As Capriles, still the opposition's biggest name, told The Economist, "For the protests to be effective, they must include the poor."
Capriles has urged protesters to gather tomorrow en masse, and march peacefully. From prison, López passed a note to his wife, calling for more protests, a message that rapidly spread through social networks. "Tomorrow will tell what the future's going to be," Smilde said. If the turnout is huge and violence breaks out, Venezuela may be headed for prolonged unrest. If not, he said, things may "fizzle out."
UPDATE, Saturday, February 22, 6:30 p.m. ET (Benjy Hansen-Bundy):Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets today, some to protest Maduro's government, others to support it. The AFP reported at least 50,000 opposition protesters marching in the streets of the Sucre neighborhood of Caracas. A pro-government rally, also in the capital, marched "against fascism." Though today's protests were largely peaceful, Al Jazeera has reported at least eight deaths and more than 100 injuries since the protests began on February 2.
UPDATE 2, Sunday, February 23, 1:31 p.m. ET (Benjy Hansen-Bundy): One day after he rescinded a CNN reporting team's press credentials, President Maduro said on Friday that they can return to Venezuela. Also on Friday, during a late night news conference, Maduro invited Obama to begin negotiations and settle differences, though his language wasn't particularly amicable. Relations between the US and Venezuela have been frosty under Maduro and under Chávez before him (Chávez once called George W. Bush a "donkey"). Maduro's invitation for talks came just days after he kicked three American diplomats out of the country.
UPDATE 3, Monday, February 24, 1 p.m. ET (Benjy Hansen-Bundy): Protesters took to the streets again Monday morning, setting up roadblocks in major cities and banging on pots and pans. The death toll has reached as high as 12, Reuters reported; though the exact number, and who is to blame, are both disputed. Parts of several cities in the western Táchira state, including San Cristóbal, are heavily barricaded, inaccessible to government forces, and apparently under the control of the student demonstrators. Trash and branches burn in the streets of higher income neighborhoods, where the protests tend to be concentrated. The governor of Táchira, José Vielma, a member of the ruling Socialist Party, has criticized Maduro's management of the crisis. Criticism from within the party is irregular. In a radio interview, Vielma said that the students should have the right to protest peacefully, and that López should be freed. Capriles and Maduro are scheduled to meet today at a routine gathering of governors and mayors; some observers hope this will provide the opportunity to ease tension between the rival parties.
UPDATE 4, Thursday, March 6, 3 p.m. ET (Benjy Hansen-Bundy): The anniversary of Hugo Chávez's death yesterday was marked by disparate scenes: continued violence in the streets as hardcore student protesters and militant members of the opposition barricaded themselves against government forces, and large-scale pro-government rallies, with all the pomp and fanfare of state sponsorship. At least 20 people have died in the clashes. The US House of Representatives condemned the crackdown by Maduro's government in a nonbinding resolution endorsed by 393 votes, with just Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY) in dissent. (The measure "deplores.…the inexcusable violence perpetrated against opposition leaders and protesters.")
A second Danish zoo has announced that it might kill a male giraffe. The news comes just days after the internet exploded with outrage when Marius the 18-month old giraffe was dispatched with a bolt gun and dissected in front of an audience that included children, before being fed to the lions at the Copenhagen Zoo. In a dark twist, the next potential euthanasia candidate, at the Jyllands Park zoo, is also named Marius.
The media circus began with protestors outside the Copenhagen Zoo on Sunday and a petition signed by 27,000 people to rehouse Marius in one of several zoos that had already indicated that their doors were open.
As this debate rages, it's crucial to remember that Marius was not just an exotic attraction: he was part of a larger conservation program that breeds animals with the specific goal of maintaining the diversity of each species' gene pool.
Nicolas Jaar, left, and Dave Harrington are Darkside.
When I called up electronic-music producer Nicolas Jaar, the 24-year-old wunderkind was walking the streets of New York—briskly, judging by the pace of his breathing. He rapped ecstatic about his new project, Darkside, a collaboration with his old Brown classmate Dave Harrington. The two of them are touring now to showcase their debut album, Psychic—the shows in Paris and Berlin have already sold out months in advance.
Jaar says Psychic is the antithesis of his first album, Space is Only Noise, which he calls a "pure" and "ethereal" effort to "imbue a lot of love and honesty into my music that I felt was lacking around me." So what happened after that idealistic and critically praised project that made him feel compelled to compose its antithesis?
"Snow is not always white," he replies, deploying the first of several such metaphors he used during our conversation—New York had just been hit by snowstorm Hercules. "It's really dirty in New York right now and it looks like shit." That's part of what Psychic is about: "The dark side of all these idealistic ideas is that they have to be sold," he says. "And as much love as you try to put into something, it instantly goes into the chain of capitalism, and that's just kind of gross. It's kind of dirty. It's the same thing as the snow, right?"