Gabrielle Canon

Gabrielle Canon

Editorial Fellow

Gabrielle is a Renaissance scholar and graduate from USC where she recently received a Masters in Specialized Journalism. Her work has also appeared in LA Weekly, the Huffington Post, and the National Catholic Reporter. Connect with her on Twitter @GabrielleCanon or email gcanon[at]motherjones.com

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Armed With a Backpack Studio and a Plane Ticket, Beat Making Lab Sows Global Activism

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

In Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, fences as far as the eye could see were topped with barbed wire. Glass bottle shards protruded from concrete walls so that no one could scale them. Some buildings were even corralled by electric barriers. They resembled fortresses—all but one. "At Yole!Africa, the walls were completely bare. Students were sitting on them," recalls Pierce Freelon, one of the founders of Beat Making Lab.

Where can art happen? "The answer is 'anywhere and everywhere.'"

Beat Making Lab, a project that began in 2011 as a music production and entrepreneurship class at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, had morphed into an international expedition to teach kids how to make beats and set up makeshift studios for around the world. Yole!Africa, a Congolese Center for Art and Cultural Exchange, was their first stop. "When you came in, there were two concrete slabs where artists are dancing," Freelon adds. "You don't need a dance studio with hardwood floors, with windows and a ballet bar, to put in work and do dance. You can do it in the dirt."

They had come to lend that DIY mentality to an art-form not yet represented at Yole!Africa. With just a backpack full of gear—USB microphone, keyboard, laptop, MIDI controllers, headphones, and software—Freelon and BML cofounder, the producer/DJ Stephen Levitin (who has worked with the likes of Azealia Banks, Camp Lo, Mos Def, and Wale) set up shop in a storage room and launched their first two-week workshop. "In terms of where [art] can happen?" Freelon says, "the answer is anywhere and everywhere."

In 2013, the duo helped produce songs from a prison in Panama. They brought beat-making tools to the beaches of Fiji. They held sessions on the streets of Senegal and Ethiopia. Along the way, they documented their experiences and created videos for the songs their students created. Here's one from Ethiopia:

Before long, the project caught the attention of PBS, which signed on to help produce a web series. Season 2, which launches today, kicks off in Nairobi with the video at the top of this post. The beatmakers have taken a more political turn this time around. In Kenya, they partner with /The Rules (a "global movement to bring power back to people, and change the rules that create inequality and poverty around the world"), interweaving recording sessions with spoken word workshops led by Jamaican poet Staceyann Chin, and digital power-mapping workshops led by Ann Daramola (a.k.a. Afrolicious). The goal: to encourage participants to deploy art in the cause of activism.

“It was the ill-est thing ever," Freelon says. "Those same students who have been thinking about tax havens and queerness and patriarchy are now coming into our Beat Making Lab and making beats."

Freelon and Levitin hope to keep expanding into new territory. Up next on their wish list are Palestine, Israel, India, and China. "We left Kenya saying we need not ever go back to what we were doing in 2013," Freelon says. "From this time forward we are going to have a deeper, more intentional process."

Subscribe to BML's YouTube channel to see the story unfold.

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How the Sweetener Industry Sugar-Coats Science

| Wed Jun. 25, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Food companies have spent billions of dollars to cover up the link between sugar consumption and health problems. That's the conclusion of a new report from the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

sugar industry lobbying
From "Added Sugar, Subtracted Science"

The industry's tactics—similar to those used by Big Tobacco in downplaying the adverse health effects of smoking—were explored by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens in the 2012 Mother Jones investigation "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies." But this latest report draws on some newly released documents submitted as evidence in a recent federal court case involving the two biggest players in the sweetener industry: the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association (the trade group for manufacturers of high fructose corn syrup). 

The report details companies' plans to bury data and to convince consumers that sugar is "fine in moderation." It also shows how trade groups hired independent scientists to cast doubt on studies that show the adverse affects of sugar consumption—and strategized to intimidate scientists and organizations who didn't tow the industry line.

For example: The researchers cite a 2003 letter, first obtained by Mother Jones, from the president and CEO of the Sugar Association to the director general of the World Health Organization. In the letter, the Sugar Association intimates that it will deny funding to the WHO and the Food & Agriculture Organization if the groups don't pull a report that shows that added sugars "threaten the nutritional quality of diets." Another internal document claimed the action worked:

"We have been successful in getting the Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) to oppose the WHO Diet and Nutrition Report 916 calling for 10% consumption of sugar, we have been successful in getting the U.S. WHO representative Dr. Steiger to express major concerns with Report 916 and call for edits to the initial draft of the WHO Global Strategy recommending to limit sugar intake."

Sure enough, when The World Health Assembly (the WHO's decision-making body) released its global health strategy on diet and health in 2005, the study in question wasn't referenced once.

General Mills sugar lobbying
From "Added Sugar, Subtracted Science"

The report's authors hope that the new findings will influence the ongoing battle over school lunches eaten by 32 million children each day. In 2013, both General Mills and the Sugar Association weighed in on proposed lunch standards, dismissing the connection between sugar and health problems. According to the report, "the USDA adopted a weaker rule than it first proposed, limiting kids' sugar intake at school by weight rather than by calorie as public health experts had recommended." If the current agriculture appropriations bill is approved in an upcoming congressional vote, schools will be allowed to opt out of new USDA rules that require cafeterias to provide more fruits and vegetables in students' lunches.

The authors also hope to hasten change on food labels. The FDA is currently evaluating proposed revisions that would require manufacturers to list added sugars separately from those that occur naturally. A public hearing is scheduled for Thursday in Washington D.C. Six trade groups, including the Corn Refiners Association, the American Frozen Foods Institute, and the National Confectioners Association, have already pushed on the FDA to postpone while they complete "consumer perception research," on the proposed changes. Representatives from the Center for Science and Democracy plan to present the results of the study to encourage officials to move forward with the new labels.

You can read the full report here

Weather-Sensitive Watering, and 4 Other Simple Fixes for California's Drought

| Tue Jun. 17, 2014 6:01 AM EDT

There's been a lot of scary news on the drought front lately. In the midst of its third dry year in a row (and what's shaping up to be the driest in 500 years), California faces worsening wildfires and drinking water shortages. The state will likely have to rely on dirty and costly fossil fuels instead of hydropower for energy. Plus, because the state is the nation's largest agricultural producer and international exporter, California's crisis will have severe economic implications for the entire country, including raising the price of your favorite produce.

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent on water supply options that are now tapped out, and a recent survey showed that Californians are unwilling to invest in any new infrastructure or programs. Are we doomed?

Meaningful Music Meets Debauchery in the Desert: Anti-Flag Rocks Coachella

| Mon Apr. 21, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

The sun had set on the first day of Coachella. Bright, colored lights adorning art installations and beaming from stages highlighted the plumes of smoke and dust clouds emitting from audiences at the Indio Fairgrounds. I hurried through the sweaty shoulders clustered in front of the main stage, excited to see a band that played a big part in my musical upbringing.

Anti-Flag, which celebrated 20-years of punk rock in 2013, was set to play one of the smaller stages Friday, April 11, at midnight in the Gobi tent. The Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival has consistently delivered on nostalgia, bringing out new artists along with acts audiences know and love. But I wondered what the Anti-Flag crowd would look like.

The festival, which started small in Indio, California, in 1999, has since grown to attract worldwide attention, amenities such as craft beer, gourmet food, and luxury campsites, along with a hefty price-tag (admission runs from $349-$799, not including transportation, housing, food, and a budget for the more nefarious activities commonly considered part of the festival experience). 

The aesthetic of the festival's attendees is often discussed (and criticized) more than the music, and it largely defines the brand and attraction of Coachella. This year, the throngs of festival-goers were styled as expected. Neon tanks blended with short skirts, a scattering of ironic Native American headdresses, and, of course, skin, skin, skin. Dressing for the heat of the desert doesn't leave much to the imagination.

The hallmark of festival style, however, is a flowered wreath. A bouquet of large blooms wrapped in a crown, these wreaths adorned heads in every direction. Beautiful but cumbersome, their glamor began to wear thin the more often I saw them. They're worn as a nod to the "free-spirit" identity crafted by music festivals like Coachella, but in reality, they seem limiting. How can you head-bang with flowers in your hair? I didn't expect to see many of them at the Anti-Flag set that night.

Anti-Flag drummer Pat Thetic Megan Thompson

When I spoke to drummer Pat Thetic earlier that the day, he said he wasn’t fazed by the notion that his punk band might be playing to a more eclectic, or at least a smaller audience at Coachella."There are a lot of people here and they are open to ideas," he said."We need to have a voice of dissent in every environment. Whether it is a place like Coachella or a place like Warped Tour or at a local football game—you have to have a voice of dissent."

Anti-Flag is no stranger to the role. Hailing from Pittsburgh, the band started with a political aim, founded on their town’s history of labor movements. Its two original members, Thetic and lead singer/guitar player Justin Sane, were joined by Chris Head (rhythm guitar, backing vocals) and Chris Barker or "Chris #2" (lead vocals, bass guitar) in the late nineties.

Punk Rock was a venue for voicing their beliefs and rallying others."We were all trying to say something," Thetic says. "It did not necessarily mean that we were intelligent and had good things to say, but we were angry and activism and politics were a place to release that anger and frustration." His words perfectly described how I felt as a high school kid when I first discovered the band and punk rock. I loved the pounding rhythm that paralleled how I felt about the messages in the music.

The band has remained dedicated to highlighting social ills and continues to be involved in important causes. Last year, they partnered with Art For Amnesty, the Amnesty International campaign inspired by the imprisonment of Russian activist punk band Pussy Riot. Their version of "Toast to Freedom" (below), featuring Donots, Ian D’Sa of Billy Talent, and Bernd of Beatsteaks, is just one example of their musical advocacy efforts.

They have raised funds for nonprofits championing an array of issues—from PETA to Planned Parenthood, African Well Fund to the ACLU. Anti-Flag founded Military Free Zone to highlight problems with military recruitment in schools and Underground Action Alliance, a site that brings young activists together.

That’s why when I asked Thetic how music can solve the worlds problems I was surprised to hear him say it can’t."Music doesn’t change the world by any stretch," he said adamantly,"but the people who are changing the world are listening."

I wondered if the people changing the world were even at Coachella. Thetic assured me that they were—even if they didn’t know it yet."These kids are not being taught about these things but if they come to a festival like this maybe they will stop by and hear an Anti-Flag song," he explains. “If they are like ‘Who are these guys? Why are they so angry? What are they talking about? Should I be that angry?’ Those ideas can catch hold and spark a fire."

I reached the Gobi tent right before Anti-Flag was scheduled to play. I looked around at the people trickling in and hoped to see a fire spark. The lights went up. The band took the stage. The crowd grew. The onlookers transformed into a sea of bobbing heads and thrashing arms. Some shouted along. Others just moved to the music.

“Welcome to the most right and righteous circle pit of all Coachella history!" Chris #2 shouted from the stage."It happens right here, right now. Everyone is running in a circle. If someone falls down we pick them up!" The crowd erupted into organized mayhem—a blur of circular motion cycling through the middle. The moshing continued throughout the set. People kept their phones put away, even when Thetic brought his drum kit into the crowd for the final song.

By the time the band finished it was nearing 1 am. The dust from disbanded festival-goers was settling as workers made the rounds collecting trash left behind.

As I made my way out of the tent I saw it. Crumpled, laying in the dirt near the stage, a flower wreath had been left behind by its wearer. I hoped it had been ripped off in triumph and danced into the ground while its owner was caught in the moment, hearing the message, and truly listening to the music. One can only guess how it landed there, but to me it was a symbol that someone left that night changed—if only in the smallest way.