2014 - %3, July

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens' "Cold World" Brings the Spirit

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Naomi Shelton and the Gospel Queens
Cold World
Daptone

Naomi Shelton Cold WarIf you pick up Cold World, get ready to do some foot-stomping. Like her more secular labelmate Sharon Jones, Naomi Shelton sings with a gritty warmth that will rouse believers and nonbelievers alike, while her Gospel Queens serve as a stirring foil, locating that sweet spot where church music and old-school R&B intersect. This isn't a mere exercise in nostalgia for purists, however: Exciting tracks like "Get Up, Child" and "Bound for the Promised Land" boast propulsive grooves that will keep any party cooking with funky grace.

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Fast Tracks: Imelda May's "Tribal"

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

TRACK 3

"It's Good to Be Alive"

From Imelda May's Tribal

VERVE

Liner notes: Riding an exuberant rockabilly groove, the Irish shouter delivers a message of hope.

Behind the music: A veteran of Jeff Beck's guitar sessions, May wrote this exhilarating tune the day after giving birth to her first child.

Check it out if you like: Big, confident voices, from Wanda Jackson to Connie Smith to Neko Case.

This review originally appeared in the July/August 2014 Issue of Mother Jones.

Photos: The World's Largest Church Is in the Middle of an African Coconut Plantation

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

Central-West Côte d'Ivoire is a lush agricultural landscape, stuffed with rich banana, rice, and cocoa fields. The region is this West African nation's equivalent of the corn belt of Iowa and Illinois. A long drive down stretches of road left pockmarked by the ongoing rainy season yields endless repetitions of the same scene: Tiny villages—each home to only a few dozen farmers living in thatched-roof huts—quietly tending to crops and livestock. Things are even more peaceful than usual now, as the Muslims that make up this area's dominant religious affiliation celebrate Ramadan.

But as you arrive in Yamoussoukro, the nation's capital, a strange monument can be seen towering over the horizon: An enormous gilded cross that adorns the top of what is, by many accounts, the world's largest church.

Topping St. Peter's Basilica in Rome by more than 80 feet, Basilica Our Lady of Peace in Yamoussoukro, sometimes called the "basilica in the bush," is a jaw-dropping and bizarre monument to the end of a period only a few decades ago when Côte d'Ivoire was competing against other newly-independent African nations to become the cultural and economic powerhouse of the continent.

basilica columns
The basilica is supported by 84 pillars, each one 112 feet tall. Tim McDonnell

The raw numbers are stunning: Between July 1986 and September 1989, 1,100 workers cleared 178 acres of coconut grove, coated the space with 13 football fields-worth of European marble, and erected a 520-foot-tall structure, supported by 128 towering Doric columns, that can accommodate 200,000 worshippers. Inside are 24 stained-glass windows. The organ can reach volumes that lead to permanent hearing loss. The building is estimated to weigh 98,000 metric tons.

But probably the most interesting figure—how much it all cost—is shrouded in mystery: Although independent estimates pegged the price tag at about $300 million, then-President Félix Houphouët-Boigny was notoriously tight-lipped, preferring to refer to the construction as a gift from God (with help from his massive personal cocoa fortune).

"Most people think it also mostly came out of the treasury," says Tom Bassett, a geographer and Côte d'Ivoire​ historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. For that reason, Bassett says, it got a second nickname: "Our Lady of the Treasury."     

basilica stained glass
The basilica contains 24 massive stained-glass windows, each featuring a biblical scene. In this one, which depicts Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem, former Ivorian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny is shown kneeling in front of Jesus. Tim McDonnell

The wealthy heir to one of the country's largest cocoa operations, Houphouët-Boigny didn't exactly choose the most opportune moment to publicly drain his nation's cash reserves on what quickly came to be seen as less a glorification of God and more a vanity project straight from the "dictator handbook," as the Daily Beast recently put it. 

Houphouët-Boigny became Côte d'Ivoire​'s first president after the country gained independence from France in 1960 and ruled as a more or less benevolent dictator until his death 1993, overseeing what became known as a "miracle" period of economic prosperity in the 1960s and 70s. In 1983, he named his home village Yamoussoukro the new administrative capital and shortly thereafter set about planning the city's crown jewel, the basilica. In keeping with a request from Pope John Paul II, who said he wouldn't consecrate the building otherwise, the dome was made slightly shorter than St. Peter's. But the addition of a towering cross atop the dome pushed the church above its counterpart in Rome.

basilica dome
The dove at the center of the basilica's dome is 23 feet wide. Tim McDonnell

But meanwhile, by the late 80s the country had fallen to economic ruin, hit simultaneously by a nosedive in cocoa and coffee prices, climbing oil prices, and disastrous mismanagement of state-owned businesses. Midway through the basilica's construction, Côte d'Ivoire declared itself insolvent. At the same time, budget-resuscitation measures mandated by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank slashed basic services and key agricultural subsidies, drastically lowering the standard of living for most Ivorians—including those living on farms in the shadow of the basilica.

All this left Houphouët-Boigny wide open to scathing criticism for the unseemly contrast between the church's opulence and the decay of the surrounding countryside; his public image wasn't helped by a large stained-glass window just inside the dome that depicts him kneeling before Jesus on his entrance to Jerusalem. An unnamed Vatican official told Time that "the size and expense of the building in such a poor country make it a delicate matter." Still, the Pope consecrated the basilica in September 1990, the only time the thousands of seats here have been full (and the only time a grandiose papal residence on the grounds has been occupied).

basilica interior
The interior of the basilica can seat 7,000 worshippers; altogether, the compound can accommodate 200,000. Tim McDonnell

Since then, the basilica has been little more than a tourist destination; services are held weekly but are sparsely attended. In late 2002, while then-President Laurent Gbagbo was out of the country, disgruntled military leaders staged a coup that threw the nation into a bloody, two-year civil war. The basilica briefly came back into the limelight during this period, as Yamoussoukro became the heart of a UN-enforced buffer zone between rebel forces in the north and Gbagbo supporters in the south, where the country's largest city, Abidjan, lies. Political leaders on both sides, aided by the national media, portrayed the conflict in part as one between a Christian south and Muslim north, with the basilica in the middle. 

But in reality, Bassett says, demographic data never supported the existence of such a division—there are likely to be just as many Muslims in the south as in the north. And in any case, he says, "I don't think the basilica really fits into that narrative." So sorry, there are no heart-wrenching, The Sound of Music-esque scenes of embattled families taking refuge inside from machine-gun toting soldiers. It's a ghost town, a highly-visible tombstone for a Côte d'Ivoire that died before it could be born. 

basilica yamoussoukro
The basilica is situated on the outskirts of Yamoussoukro, former president Félix Houphouët-Boigny's hometown. It was a tiny village before he designated it the nation's administrative capitol in 1983; today it has about 240,000 residents. Tim McDonnell
basilica walkup
The compound is spread across 17 acres (equivalent to 13 football fields) of marble imported from Portugal, Spain, and Italy. Tim McDonnell
basilica interior
The world's largest church rarely sees more than a couple hundred worshippers. Tim McDonnell

 

The NFL Was Harder on These 6 Players for Smoking Pot Than It Was on Ray Rice for His Assault Arrest

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 8:52 PM EDT

The National Football League handed Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice an unexpectedly lenient punishment Thursday following his offseason arrest for assaulting his fiancée back in February: a two-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy. Rice allegedly hit Janay Palmer (now his wife) so hard she lost consciousness—and then security cameras caught him dragging her out of an elevator in Atlantic City. Aggravated assault charges eventually were dropped against both of them (Palmer allegedly hit Rice, too), and the two later held a bizarre joint press conference addressing the whole incident.

Let's Watch Stephen Colbert Make Fun Of Tim Draper's Stupid Plan To Split California Into 6 States

| Thu Jul. 24, 2014 12:24 PM EDT

In 2016, Californians will vote on stupid Tim Draper's stupid initiative to turn America's greatest state into six stupid (and deeply unequal) little states. The initiative will fail, and even if it somehow passes, the state legislature will never approve it, and even if it somehow did, Congress will never agree to it. So, this whole thing is stupid. Fitting then that famed ridiculer of stupid things Stephen Colbert had Draper on his show last night.

Colbert began by introducing Draper (a "Silicon Valley billionaire and evil stepdad in a Lifetime movie") and his stupid plan to the uninitiated:

Then "the riskmaster" himself came on. Watching Draper come off like a weirdo is entertaining enough, but the real money shot is when Colbert responds to Draper's promise that he has no future in politics: "so, you're just going to set the charges, blow it apart, and then say 'not my fucking problem'?"

Watch:

(h/t Valleywag)

Be Still, My Heart: Beyoncé As Rosie the Riveter

| Tue Jul. 22, 2014 3:54 PM EDT

On Tuesday, Beyoncé, a whisper of perfection in an otherwise cruel and inhumane world, posted this photo of her as Rosie the Riveter to Instagram.

Beyoncé has become somewhat of a feminist hero recently, putting overtly feminist lyrics into her songs, and making genuinely heartfelt public statements about women's rights. In January, she wrote an essay about income inequality. On the other side of the pop star aisle there is Lana del Rey who is more interested in Tesla and "intergalactic possibilities."

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Quick Reads: "Do Not Sell at Any Price" by Amanda Petrusich

| Tue Jul. 22, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
Do Not Sell at Any Price

Do Not Sell at Any Price

By Amanda Petrusich

SCRIBNER

Once you get past the overexplaining of vinyl-era terms (gatefold album cover, etc.), Amanda Petrusich's first-person foray into the weird world of 78 rpm collectors is an engrossing romp that illuminates this cartoonish slice of nerddom so aptly portrayed in the movie Crumb. She catches the bug, too, embarking on a quest for 100-year-old Paramount blues 78s that takes her to flea markets and record swaps, although not, like one of her sources, to the bottom of the Milwaukee River. This obsession, Petrusich ultimately divines, is rooted as much in the (perhaps unattainable) sense of authenticity and passion crackling up from those vinyl grooves as in the earthly desire to own something rare.

This review originally appeared in our July/August issue of Mother Jones. 

The Way We Live Now

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 11:05 PM EDT

Methinks someone on the EPA's social team is logged into the department's brand account on their iPhone...

If someone gets fired over this harmless mistake I will be genuinely outraged but I think it's ok for all of us to have a harmless chuckle.

Watch John Oliver Explain the Insanity of Our Prison System With Puppets

| Mon Jul. 21, 2014 4:45 PM EDT

The United States imprisons too many people for too long for too many things. As John Oliver summed it up last night, "We are doing a terrible job taking care of people that it is very easy for all of us not to care about."

Oliver outlines a few of the prison system's flagrant injustices:

  • African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of white people, despite similar levels of drug use.
  • Solitary confinement, which Mother Jones has covered extensively, is "one of the most mentally excruciating things prisoners can be subjected to." Yet when a senator asked the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons about the size of the average isolation cell during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this past February, the prison official had no idea, stalling awkwardly before making a wildly incorrect guess.
  • One in 25 prison inmates reported being sexually victimized in the past year, yet prison rape is culturally-acceptable joke material that crops up in pop culture regularly: from SpongeBob to Friends to Puss in Boots.
  • In an effort to cut costs, many states outsource food, health care, and even prison operations to private contractors. These cost-saving techniques have lead to maggot-infested food in Michigan prisons and 50 inmates dying in one 8-month stretch in Arizona.
  • Prisoner rehabilitation isn't exactly the system's focal point: Publicly-traded private prison giant Corporate Corrections of America (CCA) actually touted "high recidivism" as a reason private prisons are a "unique investment opportunity."

He closes the segment by recapping the horrors of the US prison system with mock Sesame Street puppets: The PBS show has recently made efforts to reach out to the 1 in 28 US children growing up with a parent behind bars.

The segment's bottom line: Prisoners are not treated humanely in the United States. They're viewed as a nuisance, a problem to be tucked away in a cell and never thought of again. But when nearly 1 in 100 American adults is behind bars, our broken system of mass incarceration is a human rights abuse that should not be ignored.

"Country Funk Volume II" Is the Perfect Summer Soundtrack

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

Various Artists
Country Funk Volume II 1967-1974
Light in the Attic

Country FunkLike its predecessor, the beguiling Country Funk Volume II, 1967-1974 is a collection of rebels, reprobates and other outsiders blurring genres and donning different guises. Ranging from big names to cult favorites, this dud-free, 17-track romp captures Kenny Rogers in his pre-crooner, almost-psychedelic phase and the chameleon-like Bobby Darin (here billed as Bob) in his down-home hippie groove. R&B greats Larry Williams and Johnny Watson team up for freaky rock and roll, while Willie Nelson tries out his outlaw persona—and likes it. Elsewhere, former Byrd Gene Clark puts a rootsy spin on the Beatles, and sleepy JJ Cale mines a deep, soulful groove. And there's plenty more to dig on this scruffy, lovably offbeat set, which makes a perfect summer soundtrack.