The Very Best: European Dance Beat with an African Heart, Party Band Spirit and Love for Fans

by Tom Nguyen

The Very Best, the duo of Swedish DJ/producer Johan Karlberg (Radioclit) and Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya, ended their North American tour in Los Angeles at The Roxy on June 24th. LA music audiences can be extremely fickle especially when it comes to unfamiliar and genre-deying music — one of my major gripes are people not showing up for amazing music like this rolling through town. The Very Best is doing something right and kudos to the full house of people who showed up on a Wednesday night!

DSC09599I came expecting just the duo and was delighted so see a full band on stage, with Johan on the decks, Esau on lead vocals and Seye Adelekan and Jutty Taylor on guitars. In fact, the duo set out to make their new album Makes A King much more organic and with less electronic instruments than previous albums. Johan has been quoted as saying, “We’re constantly evolving…not just in the sense that we’re trying to change our sound. But we’re constantly on a new journey which colours the music we make.”

DSC09568The music is a rich blend of Esau’s smooth vocals switching between his native language and English, Johan’s pulsing electro beats and African and Western instruments fusing together. One of my favorites, the title track Makes A King, captures that fluidity in their sound…the changing tempos, drums and beats are so infectious!
DSC09631On stage, the band truly connects with their audience. Esau, Seye and Jutty took turns on vocals throughout the set, with Esau and Seye frequently jumping off stage to join the crowd, and Johan all smiles and head bobbing and weaving, working his electro beats like a party master. I love seeing a band that’s having as much fun as the audience and doesn’t believe in any separation between artist and fan. Definitely in a celebratory mood at their tour-ending show, they accepted drinks from the audience and invited anyone willing to go onstage to join them during their last song.

At one point, Jutty dedicated a song to a fan named Matthew, who always showed up to every show and had passed away recently. DSC09562Their love and appreciation of fans is undeniable and there is a deeper meaning to their music as well, beyond the infectious dance rhythms. Esau is not afraid to sing about issues like poverty and political corruption in Malawi and raising awareness about the region. Their 2nd album MTMTMK stands for “More To Malawi Than Madonna’s Kids” and the video for Makes A King features the community organization and collective, Ethiopia Skate, empowering youth in Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, with the birth of a grassroots skate movement.

LA Film Fest 2015: 15 Films to Watch

15 Film Picks
by Tom Nguyen

The 21st Annual Los Angeles Film Festival (LAFF) opened last night at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live and runs through June 18. Looking at the list of films, I had to do a double take: there are a lot more documentaries and foreign cinema than ever before, my two favorite film genres! The LAFF site says they’ve made a new effort this year to include a “diverse selection of documentary films from around the world; and a smaller round-up of exceptional international films” and festival director Stephanie Allain made it a personal mission to make sure this was the most diverse festival yet: “About 40 percent of the films [at LAFF] are directed by women, and 35 percent by filmmakers of color,” Allain tells NBC News. “That doesn’t just happen…I so believe in this and the difference it makes in the lives of so many artists…We want to be the change we’re looking for. That is our mission.”

I recently attended a talk at CSULA Pan-African American Studies department featuring Selma director, Ava DuVernay, who said it’s absolutely vital to have more diverse perspectives in film-making and it’s heartening to see a big festival like LAFF setting a visible example showcasing films by women and people of color. After the preview are 15 films I want to see with summaries provided by LAFF. There are also free screenings at nearby FIGat7th and Metro Union Station and a free cultural event Guangzhou Traditional Arts Extravaganza hosted by Sister Cities of LA. Find a printable festival schedule here.

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14 Rappers, 14 Countries for UNICEF: Where are the Women MCs?

by Tom Nguyen

Dear San E and UNICEF,

I was excited to discover your music video #HIPHOPISHIPHOP – Hip Hop for the World bringing together 14 rappers from 14 countries to express the unifying love of hip hop. I love that this video was made in the tradition of the iconic song We Are The World, to bring light on an important global issue: children’s access to education. Except for the venerable KRS-One, I love that I didn’t know any of the rappers. Thanks for giving talented rappers around the world a chance to shine!

Now, I ask…where are the women? I was quickly disappointed to see that out of 14 rappers, there was only one woman, YACKO from Indonesia. Why does this bother me? While every rapper in that video is talented and deserving and I applaud each of them, I have so many reasons for why this gender imbalance in your video upsets me.

Hip hop has historically been a very unfriendly and unfair place for women and it still remains so. Misogyny, homophobia and transphobia are big problems in hip hop songs, lyrics and culture. I’m afraid your video only reinforces the exclusion of women in hip hop. If We Are The World had better inclusion of women in 1985, I’m sure we can do better in 2015.

Since you are using hip hop as a platform for children’s education and your own statistics show that girls suffer greater disadvantage and exclusion from education in so many parts of the world, wouldn’t you have wanted to represent more women as role models? If you had included more women cyphers, I think your message would have been much more powerful and inspiring in your quest for gender equality in education.

After all, you released this video during Women’s History Month and right before International Women’s Day. I think you squandered a very good opportunity to not only address the inequality of access to education, but to also give strength to the message that the ones most affected by that inequality are girls around the world. You could have shown young girls everywhere that they have the same right and ability to succeed in any male-dominated space.

However, I have faith in an organization that is doing so much to achieve gender equality. We’re far from achieving equal human rights and opportunities for one half of the world’s population and it’s critical to keep empowering girls and women worldwide. There are no lack of girls and women on the front lines of society fighting for equality and freedom every day in every part of the world, and hip hop is no exception. In many countries, just being female, queer or trans in male-dominated hip hop is defiant and revolutionary. Below are just 14 of so many countless talented female, queer and trans rappers (in alphabetical order) who are not only rapping but doing so by challenging the status quo and giving voice to marginalized communities around the world. I hope you’ll consider them in a second hip hop video.

Tom Nguyen

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Newport Beach Film Festival Film Showcases & Galas April 25-May 2

Having grown up in Orange County, I’m proud to say one of the most dynamic and well-run film festivals in Southern California and OC’s largest one is the Newport Beach Film Festival and this year’s 14th annual festival runs Thursday, April 25 – May 2. They screen an enormous amount of films in a week in many categories: Features, Documentaries, Action Sports, Shorts, Art, Architecture and Design (AA+D), Environmental, Music, Family, Youth and Collegiate. This year, they’re also partnering with the OC Music Awards to feature music videos. My favorite of the festival are the Showcases spotlighting films from different regions of the world, followed by a gala parties in the beautiful outdoor courtyard of Fashion Island in Newport Beach. These after-parties offer hordoevers  from select area restaurants, drinks by Absolut and Stella Artois, and live entertainment and are well worth the additional ticket (Discount tickets for some of them available below!). The OC Weekly has a good run-down on this year’s festival and here are the showcases: Continue Reading →