Though there were fewer newsworthy sessions during the penultimate day of panel discussions at the Austin Convention Center, I did catch two entertaining roundtables entitled "Meet the New Soul -- Same as the Old Soul?" and "Music Journalism in the Post-Print Era."
As with so many of these sessions attempting to answer open-ended questions, nothing much was decided during either talk. But the soul panel was notable for an appearance by Chicagoan Che Smith, better known as rapper Rhymefest, who pretty much stole the show.
The other panelists--Bob Davis of SoulPatrol.com, New York attorney Judy Tint, Claudette Robinson of the Miracles and Motown fame, and rock critic Dave Marsh--all offered different definitions of what constitutes "soul music," and where it can and cannot be heard today. But with the tenor of all of his comments, as well as with an a cappella rap of a stunning new tracks about his child custody battle, Rhymefest made it clear:
Soul music is music made by people who are not afraid to bare their souls.
"Unless you've spent time in the south or the midwest, it's hard to grasp not the academic definition of soul music, but the blue-collar working-class definition of what it really is," Rhymefest said.
The co-author with Kanye West of "Jesus Walks," Rhymefest condemned the rampant sexism and consumerism in much of the best-selling hip-hop, and attacked the business model of an industry where an artist can sell 130,000 records, as he did with his debut "Blue Collar" in 2006, "and they still make you feel like a loser."
Rhymefest has parted ways with Clive Davis and J Records and is gearing up to release his next album "El Che" independently on May 18. And the sample he provided, two verses of "The City is Falling," indicates that he isn't backing off from telling it as he sees it--though he didn't exactly square how his support for Walmart jibes with his attacks on commercialism in music.
"Artists are supposed to mean something," the rapper said. "It would have killed me if Stevie Wonder had sold 'Ribbon in the Sky' to a cologne and an energy drink and made a reality TV show."
The post-print music journalism panel offered no such rallying cry as a group comprised mostly of young journalists (some excellent, such as Maura Johnston ex- of Idolator, and some verging on annoying gimmickry, such as Chris Weingarten) bemoaned the shrinking number of paying media outlets and the simultaneous proliferation of blogs that are more about promoting free MP3s than providing critical insights or significant journalism.
These are problems no music journalist would contest. But other problems went unmentioned. As noted in another post on this blog, the top Justice Department official responsible for approving the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger spoke at SXSW about 24 hours before this session, presenting herself to be questioned about one of the most important, far-reaching and controversial stories in the music industry during the last 25 years. Yet few journalists, online or otherwise, bothered to cover it.
And as of this writing, only one blog, run by activists the Future of Music Coalition, has posted an account of Varney's appearance -- that is, if you discount those hosted by the big, old, dead-tree-media institutions of the Sun-Times, the Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.