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Music History #10: "Biko"

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“Biko”
Written and performed by Peter Gabriel
(1980)


The Music

As lead singer of Genesis, Peter Gabriel was never an overtly political songwriter. If he touched on it at all, it was usually couched in fanciful language and scenarios. But on his third solo record, he delivered an impassioned tribute to the fallen anti-apartheid leader Stephen Biko.

Gabriel did his research, reading three biographies as well as a book of Biko’s own writings. Even so, he said he felt more like a reporter than an insider. “It’s a white, middle-class, ex-public schoolboy, domesticated, English person observing his own reactions from afar,” he said. “It seemed impossible to me that the South Africans had let him be killed when there had been so much international publicity about his imprisonment. He was very intelligent, well reasoned and not full of hate. His writings seemed very solid in a way that polarized politics often doesn't."

“Biko” reached #38 on the UK charts, and for years was a powerful sing-a-long closer to Gabriel’s live set. The song has been covered by Joan Baez, Simple Minds, and Paul Simon.

The History

Wikimedia Commons

On September 12, 1977, Stephen Biko, an influential leader in South Africa’s “Black Consciousness” movement, died while in police detention. He was 30 years old.

Biko was born in South Africa in 1946, two years before apartheid—enforced racial segregation—was made an official policy of his native country. While studying medicine in college, Biko became active in the anti-apartheid movement. In 1968, he set up the South African Students’ Organization and was elected its first president the year after. By 1972, Biko’s full-time activism got him expelled from medical school, and brought him under scrutiny by the government. They even tried to impose a kind of restraining order on him, preventing him from leaving his hometown. But Biko’s fervor spread, as he set up clinics and community groups to help political prisoners and to assist black students.

Like Martin Luther King, Jr. before him, he was charismatic and eloquent, inspiring his followers to work for peaceful change. And like King, he made a lot of enemies.

When Biko was taken into custody in August 1977, it was the latest in a string of arrests. He was never convicted of a crime, nor accused of inciting violence, but the South African government considered him a growing threat to their regime.

The government’s official line on the cause of Biko’s death was that he starved himself while in prison. But an autopsy revealed that he had been tortured and beaten, and died from massive head injuries. Donald Woods, a journalist and close friend of Biko’s, photographed the body in the morgue and exposed the truth of the police brutality.

There was a trial, but the South African Attorney General said that he would not prosecute any of the officers involved with the arrest. Biko’s injuries were explained away as the self-inflicted wounds of a suicide attempt. Ultimately, the judge dismissed the murder charge because there were no witnesses. After the trial, the police claimed that they had documents proving that he was a terrorist who had been planning sabotage, murder, and riots.

Biko’s death raised world consciousness of the apartheid issue, and laid the foundation for a long, slow march toward the democratic elections and integration that finally took root in South Africa in the early 1990s. In 1987, Stephen Biko’s story was brought to the screen in Cry Freedom, starring Denzel Washington.

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technology
ABBA Is Going on Tour—As Holograms
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Missed your chance to watch ABBA perform live at the peak of their popularity? You’re in luck: Fans will soon be able to see the group in concert in all their chart-topping, 1970s glory—or rather, they’ll be able to see their holograms. As Mashable reports, a virtual version of the Swedish pop band is getting ready to go on tour.

ABBA split up in 1982, and the band hasn't been on tour since. (Though they did get together for a surprise reunion performance in 2016.) All four members of ABBA are still alive, but apparently not up for reentering the concert circuit when they can earn money on a holographic tour from the comfort of their homes.

The musicians of ABBA have already had the necessary measurements taken to bring their digital selves to life. The final holograms will resemble the band in the late 1970s, with their images projected in front of physical performers. Part of the show will be played live, but the main vocals will be lifted from original ABBA records and recordings of their 1977 Australian tour.

ABBA won’t be the first musical act to perform via hologram. Tupac Shakur, Michael Jackson, and Dean Martin have all been revived using the technology, but this may be one of the first times computerized avatars are standing in for big-name performers who are still around. ABBA super-fans will find out if “SOS” still sounds as catchy from the mouths of holograms when the tour launches in 2019.

[h/t Mashable]

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Art
6 Great (and Not-So-Great) Works of Art Made by Robots
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Cold, calculating, unfeeling—none of the stereotypes associated with robots seem to describe makers of great art. But that hasn’t stopped roboticists from trying to engineer the next Picasso in a lab. Some machines and algorithms are capable of crafting works impressive enough to fool even the toughest critics. As for the rest of the robot artists and writers out there, let’s just say they won’t have creative types fearing for their jobs anytime soon. 

1. A BEATLES-ESQUE POP SONG

If you heard the song above at a party or in a crowded store, you might assume it’s just a generic pop tune. But if you listened closer, you’d hear the dissonant vocals and nonsense lyrics that place this number in the sonic equivalent of the uncanny valley. “Daddy’s Car” was composed by an artificial intelligence system from the Sony CSL Research Laboratory. After analyzing sheet music from a variety of artists and genres, the AI generated the words, harmony, and melody for the song. A human composer chose the style (1960s Beatles-style pop) and did the producing and mixing, but other than that the music is all machine. It may not have topped the pop charts, but the song did give us the genius lyric: “Down on the ground, the rainbow led me to the sun.”

2. A NOVEL THAT MADE IT PAST THE FIRST ROUND OF A FICTION CONTEST

Will the next War and Peace be written by a complex computer algorithm? Probably not, but that isn’t to say that AI can’t compose some serviceable fiction with help from human minds. In 2016, a team of Japanese researchers invented a program and fed it the plot, characters, and general structure of an original story. They also wrote sentences for the system to choose from, so the content of the novel relied heavily on humans. But the final product and the work required to string the components together was made possible by AI. The researchers submitted the story to Japan's Nikkei Hoshi Shinichi Literary Contest where it made it past the first round of judging. Though one notable Japanese author praised the novel for its structure, he also said there were some character description issues holding it back.

3. A 'NEW' REMBRANDT PAINTING

Robin Van Lonkhuijsen/AFP/Getty Images

In 2016, a 3D printer did something extraordinary: It produced a brand new painting in the spirit of a long-dead artist. The piece, titled “The Next Rembrandt,” would fit right in at an exhibition of art from the 17th-century Dutch painter. But this work is entirely modern. Bas Korsten, creative director at the Amsterdam-based advertising firm J. Walter Thompson, had a computer program analyze 346 Rembrandt paintings over 18 months. Every element of the final image, from the age of the subject and the color of his clothes to the physical brushstrokes, is reminiscent of the artist’s distinct style. But while it’s good enough to fool the amateur art fan, it failed to hold up under scruntiny from Rembrandt experts.

4. DREARY LOVE POETRY

What do you get when you dump thousands of unpublished romance novels into an AI system? Some incredibly bleak poetry, as Google discovered in 2016. The purpose of the neural network was to connect two separate sentences from a book into one whole thought. The result gave us such existential gems as this excerpt:

"there is no one else in the world.
there is no one else in sight.
they were the only ones who mattered.
they were the only ones left.
he had to be with me.
she had to be with him.
i had to do this.
i wanted to kill him.
i started to cry."

To be fair, the algorithm was designed to construct natural-sounding sentences rather than write great verse. But that doesn’t stop the passages from sounding oddly poetic.

5. A CREEPY CHRISTMAS SONG

Christmas songs rely heavily on formulas and cliches, aka ideal neural network fodder. So you’d think that an AI program would be capable of whipping up a fairly decent holiday tune, but a project from the University of Toronto proved this isn’t as easy as it sounds. Their algorithm was prompted to compose the song above based on a digital image of a Christmas tree. From there it somehow came up with trippy lyrics like, “I’ve always been there for the rest of our lives.”

6. A CROWDSOURCED ABSTRACT PAINTING

Art made by a robot.
Instapainter

The image above was painted by the mechanical arm of a robot, but naming the true artist of the piece gets complicated. That’s because the robotic painter was controlled by multiple users on the internet. In 2015, the commissioned art service Instapainting invited the online community at Twitch to crowdsource a painting. The robot, following script commands over a 36-hour period, produced what looks like graffiti-inspired abstract art. More impressive than the painting itself was the fact that the machine was able to paint it at all. Instapainting founder Chris Chen told artnet, “It was a $250 machine slapped together with quickly written software, so running it for that long was an endurance test.”

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