Leave confederate history in the past

Virginia governor Bob McDonnell wants to celebrate confederate history – but it is inextricably linked to slavery

There’s no shortage of events to create uproar in America. A couple of weeks ago it was caused by members of the Tea Party who seemed to forget that this is 2010, not 1965, and took to insulting black and gay congressmen while protesting in Washington. This month it has been Republican Governor Bob McDonnell’s turn to cause outrage with his declaration that April is Confederate History Month in the state of Virginia.

As a guest on Rev Al Sharpton’s radio show last week, I listened to caller after caller express their view on commemorating confederate history. Unsurprisingly it is a sore point (to put it mildly) for the many African-Americans whose roots lie in the south. It shouldn’t just be a sore point to African-Americans though – the confederacy was a stain on America’s history. It’s truly a wonder that any American would feel comfortable commemorating something which was the source of so much suffering for others and that created a legacy of deeply entrenched inequality that could be said to be at the root of many of the continued issues that America faces today.

In 1861, just weeks after Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas seceded from the union, Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the confederacy delivered a speech which became known as the Cornerstone Speech. In it, he said: “[The] foundations [of the new government] are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.” Even though McDonnell has now recognised slavery as part of Confederate History Month, the above statement alone should be enough to make him ponder deeply on the merits of commemorating anything from which such assertions came.

States like Virginia only fought so hard for their independence from the union in the civil war because they wished to continue to enslave millions of black people and to maintain the white supremacy that Stephens talked about in the Cornerstorne Speech. Furthermore, not only did confederate states secede from the union in order to protect their interests as slave owners, but their actions were also considered treason and illegal in the eyes of the rest of the union. And all that is the “sacrifice” that is apparently worth commemorating?

A man who called into Rev Sharpton’s show last week said: “What surprises me [about the reinstating of Confederate History Month] is that anyone’s surprised that this is still happening.” His view was that, African-American president or not, in many parts of America there are still people who cling to the notion that America was better in the old days, in the days before black people had the opportunity to do anything, much less become president. It is a shame that these can find allies in people like McDonnell.

While there are clearly progressive, forward-thinking Americans, it has also become clear that there are a number of Americans who are clinging to a very unsavory version of the past. The ugliness that has reared its head from those people since President Obama’s election has also been nothing short of spectacular and nothing short of depressing. It is truly a strange and sorry thing to see.

It is time for all people, Governor McDonnell included, to start looking ahead to the future. The past is gone, and celebrating the olden days in this way is a fruitless exercise which only courts controversy and creates deeper divisions. Politicians who practise divisive tactics like this should not be allowed to remain in office. Society simply has no need for this.

Forget confederate history. It is time for politicians of this kind to be history.

How Jay Sean & Taio Cruz Took the US by storm

Jay Sean and Taio Cruz have achieved something very few British acts have managed – selling R&B and urban pop back to the US. They tell Lola Adesioye how they did it
jay sean
 ‘You have to keep the dream alive’ … Jay Sean performing in Los Angeles. Photograph: Angela Weiss/Getty Images

Every few years, the US charts are subject to what is always called a “British invasion”. In 1965 alone, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Manfred Mann, Freddie and the Dreamers, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Herman’s Hermits and the Dave Clark Five all reached No 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In the early 80s, Eurythmics, Duran Duran, the Police, the Human League, Culture Club, Wham!, Simple Minds, Tears for Fears and Paul Young all topped the chart within a few months of each other. Early in the last decade, the success of Coldplay and Radiohead prompted suggestions of a British invasion of the album chart.

Take a look at those acts. With the exception of Culture Club’s bass player, Mikey Craig, every one of them is white. Black British acts topping the US chart are few and far between, Fine Young Cannibals, fronted by Roland Gift, had a pair of No 1s in 1989; the reggae singer Maxi Priest reached the top in 1990, as did Seal in 1995. Mel B managed it as a member of the Spice Girls in 1997.

The reasons for that lack of success are easy to determine: America has long led the world in western black music – blues, rock’n’roll, soul, funk and R&B all emerged from the US, as did their greatest practitioners. The dominant global musical force of the last 20 years, hip-hop, emerged as a black American form, before mutating into different musical strains as it conquered the world. No matter the many distinct virtues of British black music – why would you need our rappers if you’ve got hundreds of your own?

Something is starting to change, however. Of the last four Hot 100 No 1s by British acts, three have been by artists who aren’t white – Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis in 2008, Down by the British-Asian artist Jay Sean (with Lil Wayne) last year, and Break Your Heart by Taio Cruz (with Ludacris), which reached the top a fortnight ago.

Both achievements were made even more remarkable than a first glance suggests. Down was one of two Jay Sean singles to enter the Billboard top 10 at the same time, alongside Do You Remember. Cruz’s Break Your Heart, meanwhile, became the fastest-selling single in US chart history on its way to No 1.

“I don’t think you can underestimate how difficult it is to break America in any genre if you’re a British artist,” says Mark Sutherland, global editor of Billboard, the bible of the US music industry, and the magazine that gives its name to the national chart. “But it’s particularly different in this genre. Jay Sean and Taio Cruz, by any standards, have done something fairly remarkable by getting to No 1.”

Many in the industry are wondering whether or not their success suggests there are more British urban acts capable of making a successful Atlantic crossing.

“There has been a simmering trend in the past few years for American acts to co-sign a Brit – like the adoption of a parallel act oversees,” explains Jasmine Dotiwala, the former head of MTV Base production in the UK. “Damon Dash [Jay-Z’s former business partner] began it years ago with UK rap outfit SAS, then came John Legend and Estelle.” Now, she points out, the UK rapper Sway has won the patronage of Akon, and that’s not all. “Jay-Z has now signed Ladbroke Grove’s Rita Ora and Hugo and there is talk of a major American signing Tinie Tempah, too.”

Sutherland agrees that linking up with an American artist works, pointing out that both Jay Sean and Cruz “have both been quite clever” to hook up with US rappers on their breakthrough hits. “They might have done well without those collaborations, but what it does do is make radio programmers more open. They have heard of Ludacris, they’ve heard of Lil Wayne, so it’s good for opening a few more doors that may have otherwise remained closed.”

The thing that will ensure the doors remain open is the sales the two singles have generated, in a market that is shrinking. “The machine called the industry – that includes labels and promoters – is now able to see that UK sounds sell,” asserts Dotiwala.

That doesn’t mean, however, that any UK urban act now has a shot at US success. Where once the prevailing wisdom was that British urban artists who went to America were more likely to do well if they embraced their Britishness rather than imitating American styles, overt Britishness has proven to be more of a hindrance than a help for some contemporary urban artists.

“In the UK, artists like Dizzee Rascal, Tinchy Stryder and N-Dubz are all representative of the youth culture,” says Cruz. “But that [youth culture] isn’t in America, so there’s no one to relate to it. The kids in America don’t talk like that and they don’t use the same slang, so it kinda goes over their head. I think singing is a very universal thing so if I’m singing about love, everyone can relate to that. So my music is a bit more relatable.”

In fact, Dizzee Rascal was seen as a such a niche concern that his early records were released in the US on the critic-and-blogger-friendly indie label Matador, rather than on an urban label such as Def Jam or Cash Money.

What sets Jay Sean and Cruz apart is the style of the records. Even when they were making music just for British audiences, they leaned towards polished, glossy American production standards – each decided early on that their eventual goal was to succeed in the US. In fact, when Jay Sean was headhunted by Universal’s Cash Money imprint, the label’s chief executive had no idea about his nationality. “He didn’t know where I was from,” says Jay Sean. “When I sat in front of the CEO and I started talking, the first thing he said was, ‘Where you from?’ For them, they don’t care where I’m from, my music is the only thing they care about.”

And, ultimately, it is the music that makes hits in a country the size of the US. Cruz and Sean, who are both thoughtful and articulate about their careers, have tapped into a major shift in sound that is occurring within US hip-hop and R&B. That shift is seeing artists such as Beyoncé and the Black Eyed Peas move from their former styles to a fusion of pop and dance and urban. Cruz and Sean saw the changing style and cut their records accordingly, meaning they weren’t just followers of this new direction, but part of the shift themselves.

That is why, reckons David Miller, vice-president of international marketing at Atlantic Records, neither Jay Sean nor Cruz can be put squarely in the urban genre. “Taio Cruz – I definitely wouldn’t call him urban,” Miller says. “That’s pop. Straight-up pop. Jay Sean is a cool UK act that borders between pop and urban, I suppose. It’s a time now in the music industry when pop is going to be as prominent as it ever has been. It’s becoming less urban and more pop/dance. They are pop artists – capitalising on a pop sound that America is working with at the moment.”

The American way of success also means doing something the US industry has long been reluctant to believe UK acts are capable of: working as hard as Americans do. “I’m not afraid of hard work,” Jay Sean says. “When I signed to Cash Money, I realised the reason why they were so successful is because they work so hard. I’m not saying people in England don’t hustle, but when it comes to America, it’s even harder.”

Working harder doesn’t just mean turning up for meet-and-greets, or radio shows, or signings. Both Sean and Cruz – as well as other British artists such Estelle and producer Dready, who used to be part of So Solid Crew and now works with Busta Rhymes – made a leap of faith and moved to the US with no guarantee the relocation would be a success, often when the UK industry seemed to have turned its back on them. “Don’t forget,” says Dotiwala, “[these acts], including Estelle, have all persevered throughout the years when they have all been dropped by their respective labels, lost deals and had people not believe in them. Still they’ve tried different paths to get to their end goal. Many UK acts, once they have five minutes of UK fame and things go sour deal-wise, end up giving up. Estelle, Jay and Taio have grafted hard behind the scenes for a very long time to make a name for themselves.”

The artists also don’t take their British success as something that can automatically be replicated. Jay Sean says: “We don’t necessarily expect that because we’ve had some success in England, that [Americans] will care. You have to be tough; you have to be resilient. You have to keep the dream alive. If it’s tough for us in England, it’s tougher here. You have to be able to adapt, because it’s a different climate out here.”

So what does the future hold for them and other UK artists? The future is bright for Jay Sean and Cruz. Both are involved in projects featuring major American stars, and both see the opportunity to expand their brands way beyond just music. Acting may be in the stars for Jay Sean, while Cruz has already established a reputation as a producer back home, and is also involved in fashion.

Atlantic’s David Miller believes there are many more British urban artists who – with the right sound, the right look and the right work ethic – could succeed in the same way in the US, particularly female acts. “There are lots of artists who could have success here,” he says, nominating former Sugababe Keisha Buchanan, Sabrina Washington of Mis-Teeq and Jamelia. “They are incredibly talented, they’re not trying to be anything other than they are, and if they went down the Rihanna route and did pop/R&B with a bit of dance, they’d be very successful.”

Miller, Dotiwala and Sutherland are untied in the belief that many more British artists will come through. “The internet has made the world much smaller,” says Dotiwala. “We now research and have access to any music in every part of the globe. While in the past it may have been fashionable for countries to occasionally open the door to a foreign act, now we’re all connected on Twitter, Facebook and social networks 24/7. We get the American slanguage as immediately as artists invent the phrases. Our timelines are equal, unlike the days a hot American urban phrase could take days and weeks to filter through to the UK. Now it’s about diversity.”

That, and one other thing: songs as good as those that made Taio Cruz and Jay Sean stars.

Teach students financial literacy

Barack Obama’s new student loans legislation won’t help young people who have grown up accepting that debt is the norm

After graduating from Cambridge, I considered doing further study in America. I checked out some of the top colleges and looked into how much it would cost to study at them. I was looking at a minimum of $40,000 – per year – just for tuition alone. It was off-putting to say the least. First, I had already had a degree from one of the best universities in the world that had cost me £1,500 per year; to pay $40,000 per year to go to any other college seemed absurd. Second, it would have meant taking out further, huge loans with commercial interest rates, which I was unwilling to do.

Most American students don’t have that choice if they wish to study. I have a few American friends who graduated with debts in the region of $100,000, and went to work in professions which pay them an annual salary which is nowhere close to that. They will be paying those loans off for a long, long time – and goodness knows what the actual cost of the loan is when you take the interest into account. If you want to go to college here in the US, especially a top one, you’re looking at a minimum of around $50,000 per year to do so.

There’s no doubt, therefore, that the student loans legislation – which cuts out private lenders as the middlemen in federal lending – that has just gone through Congress will provide some relief to the many millions of American students who are considering going to college and taking out federal loans in the future.

But ultimately, the new measures – which were put in place to assist students financially and to provide greater access to higher education for more students – are lacking a vital component. In fact, it is like putting a sticking plaster on a gaping wound. The gaping wound is the increasing level of financial illiteracy of my generation and those coming behind. President Obama has talked about being on the side of students rather than banks. If he is, he needs to start implementing financial literacy into the education system – and soon.

Despite this legislation, a large number of college students will still continue to take out private loans, some of which are known to have practices and terms similar to those which fuelled the sub prime crisis; students are also defaulting on their loans in larger numbers.
Basically, it matters little whether or not there are lower interest rates if one does not know how to manage one’s money or make beneficial financial decisions in the first place.

Whether we were raised in the US or the UK, we have been brought up in a consumer culture in which easy credit and unaffordable debt have become the norm. The economic crisis is a large-scale reflection of the normalcy of individual debt in modern day society. Student loans are the first introduction many young people get to the world of debt. For American students even this is compounded due to the expensive nature of college. At the age of 17 and 18, young Americans have started to learn that it is OK to borrow tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. And of course that amount increases for those who do graduate studies. After getting their first taste of it, they will go on to take out credit cards, huge mortgages, car loans and other types of credit. Although it is said that there is “good” debt and “bad” debt the reality is that debt is debt and the people who generally benefit most from it are the creditors.

This student loans reform was tacked onto the healthcare bill, and both healthcare and student loans have similarities. Just as Americans would benefit more if they took care of their health preventatively, people would also benefit from being financially literate in advance of making decisions involving large sums of money. Without financial literacy, which involves not just the hard facts of money but also the emotional drivers of people’s financial management, we will continue to see economic crises, as people who believe that unaffordable debt is normal continue to make economic decisions based on that faulty premise. It is time for financial literacy to become as important a part of the education system as English and geography.