Monica Blaire’s “Set Me Free” is an independent artist’s lovesong to Detroit

I love lovesongs. In their best form, they remind us of how the way we love people is connected to the way we love the world.

From the first listen of Monica Blaire’s Portraits of Me, back in 2006, the song “Set Me Free” stayed stuck in my head. Maybe it was speaking to a feeling of unrequited love in my life at that moment, or the residue of that feeling leftover from years past.

Beyond whatever personal connection I felt to the song, “Set Me Free” captures the universal experience of pleading with the thing you love to love you back.

It was the way she introduced this song last week when I saw her perform at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, that made me appreciate “Set Me Free” on a new level.

She was at the climax of, arguably, the best performance she’s ever given, accompanied by two saxophones, a trumpet, a trombonist, drummer and drum machine, keyboardist, electronic flutist and two backup singers. She paused to make this point.

To the best of my recollection, she said–

How many people here get up and go to work every day?
How many people get up and go to work, knowing that you won’t get paid?
As independent artists in Detroit, we work for free all the time.
We write these songs in basements, in the middle of the night, after everybody has gone to sleep.
But we do it for the love.
I’m so honored that everybody came out tonight to show love.
Because I love this city. I’m so honored to be from this city and to be loved by all of you.

But the tone of her voice was more important than the words, electric with the reverberations of having just poured every cell of herself into the performance and also vulnerable, asking for us to love her like her life depended on it. And at that moment, it was so easy for everyone there to say hell yes, we are yours. Our love is something you can depend on. Then she performed “Set Me Free:”

I’ll be excited, as long as your kissing me/
I’ll be devoted, as long as your missing me/
but if you don’t want me, then that’s where the end will be/
Oh baby/
Just set me free…

Independent artists are told (and tell themselves) that they’ll never be appreciated in Detroit, that the only way to be successful is to leave. In a lot of ways this is true. People in Detroit are going through it. Someone just got laid off, someone else has no gas money AND a flat tire, someone else’s athsma is flaring up because she lives next to an incinerator. At the end of a lot of people’s days, it’s hard to show love.

Many of Detroit’s most talented artists end up leaving, and it’s hard to blame them. When you’re as good as Detroit musicians are, you deserve packed shows with people who know all the words and will keep their hands up the whole time. You deserve to be supported by ticket and record sales.

But every day I’m more amazed at how people fight to stay here, to make it work. “Set Me Free” is an anthem for that struggle. With every note it screams: I love you, I don’t want to leave you. I’m willing to work hard but I need you to work hard too. Love me back and I’ll never leave you, but take me for granted and I’m gone.

Detroit needs our artists as much as we need jobs or public transportation or filled-potholes. There was a time when music was one of Detroit’s greatest exports and that could be the case again, if we are able to invent a new kind of infrastructure that thrives off independent artists and cooperative businesses rather than major labels.

On a spiritual level, Detroit artists call us to revival. Whether Blaire’s show at the museum the other night, or the deep-hearted performance Finale gave at his album release party last month, or the experience of seeing Black Milk tracks performed live with Will Sessions, or watching Invincible and Miz Korona mentor up-and-coming MCs every Tuesday at the Foundation, or Sicari, Dez and Frank Raines turning any weekday night into a dance party, or a Jeff Mills afterparty during the DEMF weekend that doesn’t stop till the sun comes up… Detroit artists make us believe in our epic city motto like it was our destiny: we will rise from the ashes, we hope for better days.

Go show them love:

Economies as cycles

economic-cyclesLast summer, as we were embarking on the second phase of the Live Arts Media Project, we held a training to prepare old LAMP youth to lead a summer program for new participants.  In 2006, we had made this amazing CD about the drop-out crisis in Detroit.  The 2008 summer program was focused on creating videos to accompany the CD, exploring some of the major themes in greater depth, offering more concrete solutions to the problems identified through the CD.

The three main themes on which we focused the videos were:  alternatives to criminalization, respect, and cooperative economics.  We arrived at these topics after a two-year-long participatory research project, in which the youth who created the CD led workshops in Detroit Public Schools, generating discussion about possible solutions to the drop-out crisis.

It was essential that the 2008 summer program be led by youth who participated in the 2006 program.  So we held this 3 day intensive training, where we thought through a long-term strategy for how these videos could be used to transform the education system in Detroit and then prepared the 3 youth leaders to engage new people in that process.  Jon, Andrea and Starlet were each drawn to one of the subject areas (respect, alternatives to criminalization and cooperative economics respectively).  Each of them designed a workshop to break down their issue for the new participants through popular education techniques.

Starlet, whose topic was cooperative economics, broke it down like this: “economy means cycle.  So when you have an unhealthy economy, where there are no jobs, and no support systems, it creates a cycle where schools are bad, and people use drugs, and children have no future.”  Alternatively, when you have a healthy economy, it supports the health of the community in all those different ways.  But a healthy economy doesn’t have to start with jobs.  It can start with the ingenuity of young people, and it can be fostered through a better system of education.

At the time I remember thinking– “economy doesn’t actually mean cycle.  It means the system of production, distribution and consumption that dictates our lives.”  But why should we accept that definition? The more I think about the whole “media-based economy for Detroit’s future” argument, the more  I realize that we have to embrace a new meaning of economy altogether.  It should be viewed as a cycle. As organizers working for justice and transformation, in our lives and our communities, we have to begin thinking in terms of creating new economies (which is cyclical), rather than simply “movement-building” (which is linear).

We can create economies of information, creativity, resource-generation and sharing.  At the heart of an economy is an exchange– the recognition that you have something to gain and something to offer.  Too often the idea of movement-building relies on an assumption of everything to give and nothing to gain.  We become obsessed with having the perfect analysis, and we isolate ourselves among increasingly narrow communities of people who affirm that analysis.  But in an economy of information, we are constantly giving and receiving.  We wrestle with contradictions and move ideas to their next level, only to uncover new contradictions.  I had this realization today, when chatting with BFP about her new project.

I told her that I was inspired by the conversation taking place on her blog, between her and Jess Hoffman of Make/Shift Magazine. They’ve been developing this concept of “movement-making” as opposed to “building THE movement.”  Where as “movement-building” implies that we just need to organize all the masses of bricks and 2x4s into the right design, towards an end-point of “justice–The End,” movement-making is about a much more ongoing, experimental, horizontal approach to transformation.  It accepts that we are never “done,” but rather, constantly in the process of making and remaking.  After I told her that her writing had inspired the vision for the 2009 AMC,  she said “I’m so humbled.  Because I was inspired by YALL.” To me this represents the best-case scenario.  Where our actions, our anlaysis and our new ideas create a constant feedback loop throughout our community.

But to create that kind of shift in consciousness- from linear thinking to cyclical thinking, from answer-giving to question-asking, we need radical new forms of education. There was an exciting conversation on the topic of transformative education tonight at the Boggs Center.  Bill Ayers and Berndaine Dohrn were visiting, talking about their new book, Race Course Against White Supremacy. The phrase that stuck out in my mind from the conversation was, “there is an incalculable value in every single human being.”  Our education systems can either maximize or destroy that potential.

I’m interested in the idea of an economy that cycles through everything– from the way we learn to the way we solve problems, to the way we sustain ourselves and generate wealth.  And when I say wealth, i mean it in the economic, cultural, environmental, intellectual, and spiritual sense.

Support Detroit 1 of 3

Detroit is full of new good things happening amidst the dreariness of this Winter.  This is 1 of 3.


DSE @ Grand has been open since at least the summer, so I guess it’s not   actually that new.  I first became aware of it when Nandi came home with this amazing shirt.

detroit_thing Ilana and I went in today so she could stock up on detroit gear for her travels, and we ended up talking to the owner, James, for about an hour.  His business model is exciting for a number of reasons.

One, because his shirts are sweet and many of the designs are his own, with distinct Detroit cultural references — like the “Deshaun Proof Holton For Mayor” shirt, the “Cool like Cooley High” one and the “Who Is the L.I.Y.A.H.”  one.  They are a form of independent media in themselves.  He prints them at a shop in Cleveland on a variety of union, and sweat-free shirts, all U.S. made.


Two, he comes from a family of community-oriented business people and it clearly influences his priorities.  When asked if he was going to sell his shirts at some of the popular suburban boutiques he said no because those stores were already doing well and if this provides an excuse for people to come into the city, then that’s a good thing.  He plans to launch a campaign to distribute these “support Detroit” shirts through the hip hop community, which is his core clientel.


We talked to him about Detroit Summer’s vision for a “cooperative economics curriculum ” in schools and he was excited to find ways of sharing his model with youth and schools to inspire kids to create their own businesses and stay in Detroit.

Lastly, he just really seems to have his shit together.  He runs his own photography company out of the store, when he’s not excitedly chatting up the customers.  He also maintains a blog, which accompanies the online store, where he posts regular, interesting content like this, telling the history of an old Detroit lounge, in who’s honor DSE@ Grand is named. Go check it out the next time you’re in Harmony Park, three doors down from Spectacles, another noteworthy long-standing Detroit independent business.

20-grand1 20-grand-b

Collected thoughts about Gran Torino

**Maybe don’t read this if you plan to go see the movie and don’t want the whole plot ruined for you**

Last weekend we ended the Detroit Summer retreat by going to see Gran Torino.  From where we were on Detroit’s East side, we just had to drive due north 13 miles, across 8 mile, to the mostly white, working class suburb of Sterling Heights.

Sterling Heights borders Warren, the third largest city in Michigan, a former manufacturing stronghold and the place where, two years ago, police shot and killed18 year old ChonBuri Xiong in his basement bedroom with a round of 27 bullets.

When we– a large, mixed, mostly weird-looking group of people of color walked in (late) to the theater– we were surprised to find the entire theater was packed! We couldn’t find any open seats except for the first three rows.  I split from the group and found a seat amidst the sea of people (almost entirely white), where I didn’t have to tilt my neck at a 90 degree angle.

When the movie ended, we all chatted our initial reactions and then turned our attention to the always-elaborate process of finding rides home for everybody.  But even in that brief exchange it was clear that there was no simple way to put into words the feeling that the movie left us with.

Since then I’ve had several in-depth conversation / arguments with people about the movie, read a good piece of analysis about it and concluded that I think the movie was “good” and “important.” But beyond that, my feelings about it are inconclusive.  I want to collect the variety of thoughts and conversations I’ve had about it here, in the hopes of drawing something useful out of it.

The first thing we all said to each other, walking out of the movie was, “wow, the audience really laughed at all the wrong jokes.”  Every gook, wetback, coon, dragonlady, that dropped from Clint Eastwood’s lips sent the audience into a fit of giggles.  The giggles seemed to come from a place of “I can’t believe he said that taboo thing which we all think, but is no longer cool to speak outloud.”  People will point out that he says wop, pollack, mick and other derrogatory terms for white ethnic groups just as often.  Ultimately, the racism of Clint Eastwood’s character didn’t bother me.  It was honest, and at certain moments, when he seemed to be mocking white working class racism it was actually funny.

The laughter of the audience was disturbing because it revealed a set of assumptions– one, that there wouldn’t be any Asian people in the audience, two, that there shouldn’t be any Asian people in the audience because Sterling Heights is a white working class community (despite the reality of recent demographic shifts of such inner-ring suburbs, with substantial numbers of Black and Hmong families moving in), and three, that we are far enough removed from racial violence against Asian people and other communities of color that we can comfortably laugh at it, in the same way that we can look back with a sense of humor at the days when Polish people were oppressed in this country.  It obscures the reality of ChonBuri’s death only a few miles away and less than two years ago, and it reinforces the idea that our country can heal from it’s legacies of racism with a good sense of humor.

But that dynamic with the audience was juxtaposed with the fact that the movie itself takes a much more serious and nuanced look at what the multi-racial future of America will require.

L.A. Weekly called Gran Torino the first movie of the Obama Generation.  My friend Scott went on to say:

” I think it is a film that will serve to define the transition from Bush to Obama as the end of one era (of American exceptionalism–an age defined by racism, materialism, and militarism) and the beginning of a new one filled by possibilities (e.g. liberation from an industrial order, singularities and multiplicities
rather than dogmas and masses, humility over hubris).”

I totally agree.  And for that reason the film is exciting. It captures the feeling (rightly or wrongly) that so many people had on election night– that huge unimaginable shifts are possible.  That we are not just the victims of a static history.  That history can move.  It also hints at the process of truth and reconciliation that will be necessary for this country to actually move forward.

One of the most compelling statements Gran Torino makes (and one which is fascinating to think about the Sterling Heights audience grappling with) is that the America represented by Clint Eastwood’s character will have to die in order for a new America to live.  The new America is the Hmong immigrant family, displaced by colonial wars and settled into the rapidly de-industrializing city of Detroit.

The children of the new America are split between allegiance with the traditions of their homelands and desire for the symbols of old America — the Gran Torino.  The pressures of their experience, and all the challenges of growing up in a city like Detroit breed the possibilities for intra-community violence represented by the Hmong gang (as one-dimensional, and ridiculous as the film portrays them), but it also carries the potential to restore the best parts of old America (shown through the gardening and house-rehabbing scenes).

Thao’s sister shoulders much of the burden of rehumanizing Clint Eastwood’s character.  Adrienne wondered if she was believable — would a teenage Hmong girl really be so accommodating of such a huge asshole?  It’s true she veers close to the stereotype of the angelic Asian girl, but she also manages to seem real in a lot of ways.

Sterling thought she represented the greatest hope for humanity– that when people refuse to acknowledge the hateful aspects of the world, as threatening as they may present themselves, and operate on the basis of faith in the buried human decency inherent in all people, then we have the ability to radically transform our relationships with each other.

Within that reading, what do we make of the rape scene?  It reflects a reality of serious gender violence within the Hmong community,  but the urge to simply root for Clint and his heroism in avenging her attack, denies the reality of widespread sexual violence perpetrated by the U.S. military.  Conceiving of transformative justice in the context of rape is one of the hardest ideas to wrap ones head around.  This movie doesn’t even try to go there.  But then again, it is Hollywood and it is Clint Eastwood.

Mike had a deep reading of the ending:  that ultimately, Clint Eastwood’s character sees more hope in a future America represented by Thao and his family, than in the America represented by his own children.

Rolling with this interpretation, it’s interesting to think about the legacy of the actual Ford Gran Torino.  My friend Kevin says the car was known for being unreliable.  They only made them for a few years and his friend who drove one, had to replace a bunch of parts and basically rebuild it from scratch.  The movie ends with a feel-good scene of Thao driving around Belle Isle in the Gran Torino.

I can imagine a sequel, where Thao finds himself stranded on the side of I-75 after the engine goes out and he has to hitch a ride on the back of some tricked-out low-rider bike to get wherever he’s going.  Or maybe he re-builds the engine to run on vegetable oil and starts a cooperative business to hack-up classic cars and build robots.

Whatever the scenario, the point is that it’s not enough to inherit the Gran Torino — to ride out the glory of what old America represents in our imaginations.  The work of our generation, of the new multiracial America is to re-shape what America means, from our systems of transportation, to the economies of our “dying cities”  to the power relations that govern our lives.  I hope the next movies of the Obama Generation tell those stories.



The Renaissance Center is one of the most bizarre architectural creations of the 20th Century.  It was built in the late 70s to symbolize hope for Detroit’s rebirth, following the 1967 riot/rebellion and the subsequent disinvestment and flight from the city.  GM purchased it and made it their headquarters in 1996.  Walking through it tonight, totally quiet except for a handful of restaurant-goers and security guards, as GM stands on the brink of collapse, it felt like a symbol for all the stupidity and emptiness of capitalism, but also some of the thrill and magic.

I remember running around there as a kid, and wanting to ride up and down the glass elevators, looking out at the city.  Later as a teenager, trying to sneak into the rotating restaurant on the top, and stay long enough to make one full rotation before getting kicked out.

Upon entering the building you feel transported into a late 70s vision of the future. Tubular concrete structures form a “rosette” of buildings that seem designed specifically to disorient the visitor.  There is no main ground floor.  Level 1 at one side of the building will be level 3 at another side.  To get to the place we needed to be tonight we had to take 3 separate elevators and 2 escalators.  The businesses housed in it are chains, overpriced novelty shops, offices that seem like front operations and a rotating restaurant on the top that no longer rotates.  As difficult as it may be to reach your destination inside the Ren Cen, nothing compares to the task of finding your way out.  Somehow, when trying to retrace ones steps, nothing is as you remember it.  Doors and passageways seem to have shifted, signs point in different directions.  It’s similar to the panic of being trapped in a bad dream.

But despite everything, the Ren Cen has its charm.  Like the People Mover.  If you think of it as a ride or a game, and not a form of public transportation, it changes from depressing to endearing.  If you think of the Ren Cen as a maze, with magical tubular rides that can shoot you up to the highest vantage point in the state of Michigan, giving you a completely new lens through which to view your city, then plunge you back down into a haunted house of tunnels and showcars, from which you have to escape, then it’s awesome.  Plus you can re-enact Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean video on the backlit glass pathways and pretend you are in a Doctor Seuss book, where trees grow from concrete platforms suspended in air.


Still, walking through there today, I couldn’t help but imagine a day, in the not-so-distant future when kids cut holes in barbed wire fences to go explore this abandoned place, with it’s blown-out windows that let you look straight through it.  There’s something both hopeful and heartbreaking about that.  How many more abandoned structures can this city hold?

As we work towards a different kind of economy for Detroit’s future, with different ideas of wealth and progress and power,  I wonder what symbols will capture our imaginations, what kinds of playscapes they will offer kids in future centuries, and whether they will have to die and become abandoned before we understand what they mean.

Bailout analysis


one more article, co-written by scott kurashige and grace lee boggs:

Alisa from INCITE! asked if I knew of any good analysis of the whole bailout situation because there’s so little on the big “progressive/radical” sites. My response:

hey alisa,

good question! i’ve also been been having a hard time finding good analysis.  it seems like a lot of radical/progressive people don’t know what to say.

this is probably the best thing i’ve read so far.  it’s by scott kurashige who worked with the boggs center for a long time and was one of Andy’s radical cohorts in the American Culture Dept at U of M. one important point he makes is that it’s inaccurate to refer to the big 3 as “detroit,” the way the mainstream media consistently does, because the big 3 left detroit proper decades ago, and a lot of people here have already seen the worst of what the economic crisis can bring:

this is an op-ed in the local paper, written by people from Labor Notes, a radical, rank-and-file union publication.  their most interesting point is that the UAW should be using this moment as an opportunity to get creative with their demands– to talk about national healthcare and building mass transit.

this is a really thorough break-down of how much UAW workers actually make, and where the root of the problem lies:

this is just kind of funny, the local paper loving jon stewart for having our backs:

and so is this:

then, the michigan citizen is generally a reliable source for progressive/radical local analysis, so check back regularly:

i’m actually trying to write something about building a “media-based economy” for detroit’s future.  if that happens, i will forward it on as well.

i hope that gives a slightly deeper view!  it’s complicated. one of the most interesting things about the whole situation is the feeling of solidarity among strangers, who otherwise would have so few shared interests.  like my conservative ex-GM grandfather and BFP expressing the same indignation at the way people are talking about detroit in the media.



The old Art Center Music School building

Is haunting me! For the past 7 years or so I’ve walked past it and thought it would be the ideal home for Detroit Summer. It wasn’t always abandoned during those years. In fact, these pictures I found on flickr make me realize it’s only been abandoned for a year or two. Now, the brass around the door (below) has all been stripped and a lot of the windows are broken.  The roof is in good shape though.


It’s 2 buildings– one, a rectangular sandstone building, which looks 2-storied from the outside but which is actually a large, open recital hall with high ceilings and beautiful acoustics. Attached to it is a mansion, which in the early 20th century was a funeral home, but since 1929, is where the music lessons of the Art Center Music School were held. The ACMS’s mission is to provide affordable private music lessons to Detroit kids and adults. A lot of my friends remember taking lessons there when they were little.  But it seems that the school was so devoted to this mission of benefiting the community over profit-making, that they eventually ran out of money.

The miracle is that that the buildings are still owned by the board of the ACMS non-profit. According to my landlord who heads a low-income housing non-profit in the Cass Corridor, a majority of the buildings around here are owned by speculators who think if they just hold out long enough they will be able to sell their property for a million dollars or more. In the meantime, people with energy and vision for transforming those buildings can’t afford to buy them and they remain hazards to the community.


The board members of ACMS are older African Americans, some of whom taught at the school or studied there, many of whom are in their 90s. They have staunchly protected the buildings from developers who would have bought them and turned them into lofts or bulldozed them for parking lots. They remain devoted to the vision of providing affordable music lessons for Detroiters, but seem to lack the capacity to bring the school back to life.

I learned all this in the past 3 days, after AMP and Detroit Summer found out we have to move again (from the amazing space we relocated to at Warren and Grand River only this Summer). We have until the end of March. Luckily, 2 things– 1) the people I’ve talked with at the ACMS are energetic about the possibilities of working with us. We haven’t met all of the board members, and we anticipate that some of them will be more reluctant, but it seems hopeful. 2) We are moving with our friends Carl and Monte who run the 555 Arts Gallery and are two of the most skilled, hard-working, resourceful building-renovators I know.


I’m so excited about the possibility of this move I can barely stand it. I’m not even sure why. Part of it is how sweet the building is, and the fact that it’s around the corner from my house. Another part is the history of the building. Houdini was laid out in the funeral home after his untimely death in Detroit! When Steve, one of the board members was giving us a tour on Saturday he said they used to talk about the idea of holding a seance as a Halloween fundraiser. All kinds of jazz and Motown musicians passed through the school or performed in the Hall. Apparently even some seminal Detroit Hardcore bands– Negative Approach and Necros performed there in the 80s.

It would be amazing to move Detroit Summer back into the Cass Corridor. But even more amazing to do it in a way that builds upon the legacy of the Art Center Music School, takes it to the next level, doesn’t let it die.