Detroit: Where art is made, and extorted
I’m back in my hometown this week, and I find myself thinking about the latest Huffington Post column on Detroit, which drew from a Vice Magazine article, determined to pinpoint the dereliction of the media on Detroit. Here’s the premise:
“It’s reached the point where the potential for popularity or “stickiness” or whatever you’re supposed to call it now is driving the coverage more than any sort of newsworthiness of the subject. There’s a total gold-rush mentality about the D right now, and all the excitement has led to some real lapses in basic journalistic ethics and judgment. Like the French filmmaker who came to Detroit to shoot a documentary about all the deer and pheasants and other wildlife that have been returning to the city. After several days without seeing a wild one he had to be talked out of renting a trained fox to run through the streets for the camera. Or the Dutch crew who decided to go explore the old project tower where Smokey Robinson grew up and promptly got jacked for their thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment. The flip side is a simultaneous influx of reporters who don’t want anything to do with the city but feel compelled by the times to get a Detroit story under their belts, like it’s the journalistic version of cutting a grunge record.”
While this all may be true, I dispute the notion that a media ambush on Detroit is a new occurrence. For decades global media sources have flocked to Detroit to parse out the roots of urban destitution and the beauty that emerges from the slums of despair. They come in search of the source for the music left in Motown’s shadow — techno, hip-hop, garage rock, or Northern Soul. The auto industry and the surrounding industrial decay in the inner city provide the backdrop. In a few days or in one month they rush around to meet the city’s luminaries, creating a buzz in the community that scrambles to appease them, to be a part of something that seems important. They tell folks that they are here to do the city justice, though they have no personal ties here other than their love for music. Music is the ambassador for a silent city.
And while the representatives of these media outlets often consider themselves noble seekers of fact, these magazine articles, books and documentaries are generally not even available in Detroit, nor the U.S.. where they can be fairly judged, critiqued, or debated. They air on Dutch TV, the BBC or at an obscure film festival made in their native languages, where the subjects will never even know how their ideas will be presented. Investigative journalism about racism, poverty, and history becomes another form of muckraking entertainment.
If the subjects in these pieces are lucky, they may receive a sample copy or two, but often time the media archeologists disappear leaving behind nothing, yet they extract the souls of the city for their own credibility. What these pieces do is legitimize the creators, who stand to gain financially and win public acclaim for their efforts to understand the juncture where blight inspires creativity. What is perplexing is that what they make has nothing to with accountability or in depth responsible reporting.
I learned about the fascination with the Motor City when I worked for Detroit techno record labels in the late ’90s. My job description was broad with modest resources afforded by these small companies. As a label rep, I felt like a tour guide, with international media outlets arriving weekly. We hosted Japanese writers and photographers, French filmmakers and documentarians from Holland, the UK, Australia, and Austria. We stayed up late driving them from the east side to the west side, making sure they made it to their hotels safely. Sometime they showed up on our doorstep with plans to walk around and look for a youth hostel — an unlikely premise in any American city. We ended up feeling responsible for many of them who lacked common city sense and planned to walk across town on winter’s night, carrying expensive equipment, fueled by a quest for adventure, eager to test boundaries of fear. For the ones who came proper, who called in advance, who stayed long enough to gain perspective, we broke bread with them and talked late into the night hours, explaining the contradictions and misconceptions that we lived with day in and out as default city ambassadors. Sometimes we formed enduring bonds. But many of these investigators were so rude and offensive, they never made it past the doorstep.
For the international media, we were a bit like a tourist board, showing people around, telling the stories of our native citizens. Sometimes these outlets implored budding writers like myself or photographers to work on their projects, and they contracted local artists to create designs. I worked hard on these pieces, worried that my suburban upbringing would make me an outsider journalist, too. After several years of Detroit-city living, I eventually grew confident in my voice and the ability to convey the attitudes of those around me.
This path allowed me to write for audiences worldwide, including Italian, German and Japanese readers, trusting foreign editors to properly translate my words. I published my first international piece at 22 and was thrilled to have my name translated into German and Japanese. I eventually wrote a column about Detroit arts in an Italian magazine.
Generally, these outlets claimed to be operating on a shoe string, unable to pay local talent. It always struck me as odd that the funding existed to produce such grand projects that included a budget for travel, and expensive paper stock with thick satisfying binding, but that they didn’t value the very sources who provided them with truth to drop a few thousand dollars on us. Eventually, I stopped participating in the act of free labor, unconvinced that I was doing my city justice by the mere act of signing my words over to foreigners, while domestic media paid me.
Around that time, I saw the Detroit obsession up close at Love Parade in Berlin as vendors sold T-shirts reading, “Deetroit is everywhere.” In Europe, Detroit’s influence was everywhere. At home, Detroit was alone.
While it made sense for those who sold records in those countries to grant interviews to magazines, this direct connection had nothing to do with other local characters who became involved. I wondered what they stood to benefit from telling a story in a language that wouldn’t be their own, and that would reach an audience they would never know. It was National Geographic on repeat. These visits forced me to address the purpose of travel journalism and the fine line between exploitation and thoughtful observance. A few excellent pieces, reports and films came out this era in the 80s and 90s, but most of them were pure crap.
Who really clarified this point for me was my good friend Michael Banks, whose record label Underground Resistance frequently declined participating in these sort of projects. That didn’t stop hungry media outlets from knocking on his door, brashly pompous on what they had to offer — a chance for people to tell their story freely. As if we didn’t know how to tell our own stories. Banks described it as the urban safari. While some of these efforts were genuine, he had a point. Why should he give his story away to people who had nothing to give in return?
What has changed in recent years is that this mentality has come home. American media are paying attention to Detroit for the moment, suburbs and city. For years, Detroit was forgotten by American audiences, unless Eminem or Robocop was involved, but now that we have become the symbol for American failure the romantic destitution has reached inside our own media outlets, where the coverage is apparent.
While it’s refreshing to see people that people are thinking about Detroit deeply, I wish that it would play out in the terms that Banks had advocated back then. On many occasions he agreed to interviews on one condition — that media sources agreed to return to the community. What he wanted them to do was to provide copies of their projects and give presentations to local Detroit school children. He wanted these truth seekers to show Detroit’s future that there was someone out there that cared about them and their lives, who had interesting stories to tell them, too.
What it comes down to is that yes Detroit has it’s fair share of stories rooted in turmoil of a troubled past riddled by racism, classicism and isolation. And indeed Detroit has stories of redemption, survival, and inspiration. But who are we really trying to tell?
For evidence on the onslaught see the following:Time Magazine: Letter from DetroitGuardian Magazine: Time Magazine Sets Up in DetroitHuff Post: Detroit Overrun with Lazy JournalistsViceland: Something, Something, Something from Detroit