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Hail indie rock, in all its diversity

Times Staff Writer

The debate over how racial identity is expressed in popular music is a crucial one; one might even say that pop itself is a debate over how race is expressed. A new round of this always-necessary conversation is unfurling, causing heated discussion among avid music fans.

It started in October, when New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones published an essay lamenting the lack of African American influence in indie rock. Carl Wilson countered in Slate, suggesting that class, not race, is the dividing point. Now David Brooks has written a New York Times op-ed piece, based around a conversation with E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt, blaming technologically driven social fragmentation for isolating musicians, causing historical amnesia and resulting in music that “stinks.”

These pundits raise many valid and troubling points. It’s tempting to just join in, starting by gently noting the irony of three well-published, white, upper-middle class men leading an argument about race and class. Then there’s gender: Frere-Jones’ description of his musical ideal as “miscegenation” -- a word choice he’s said was deliberate and appropriate -- raises serious issues about sexual violence and racial objectification that stretch all the way back to slavery and can’t just be put aside in the paragraph or two they’ve been granted in this debate.

But first, a practical intervention. Frere-Jones has claimed that what’s happening right now doesn’t negate the historical arc he’s described. That’s fair. But his piece is being read in the present tense, when in fact indie rock right now, like pop in general, is strikingly hybridized.

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This cross-fertilization is one of the most positive aspects of pop today. It’s been renewed by a love of dancing, cross-cultural collaborations forged on the Web, and the ever-growing diversity of fans themselves. Here are several artists, among the many, who are making it happen. (In addition to Ann Powers, the following contributions are from staff writers Richard Cromelin, Randy Lewis, Todd Martens, Margaret Wappler, August Brown and Charlie Amter.)

M.I.A. Living the complexities of race and gender, women in hip-hop always occupy multiple positions. Internet-savvy world traveler M.I.A. leads a new wave. She’s the most political of a bunch that includes Philly upstart Santogold and Kanye protege Kid Sister, but simply by existing, these ladies redefine the game. (A.P.)

Devendra Banhart. He’s typecast as the driving force of an international psychedelic folk scene, but the many songs he’s written and recorded en espanol are a reminder that he’s half Venezuelan (thanks, mom!) and spent most of his preteen years in Caracas. And his latest album includes clear homages to some of his favorite African-rooted music, such as doo-wop, Jamaican mento and bluebeat, and even some Jackson 5-style Motown. (R.C.)

Ozomatli. You need look no further than East L.A. to find a thoroughly invigorating band that fuses rock with Latin, Caribbean, funk and soul. Ozomatli has practically become the house band at the Hollywood Bowl, and it’s been common during the group’s opening slots for high-powered headliners to see tens of thousands of people hearing the group for the first time getting caught up in its irresistible fusion. (R.L.)

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Gogol Bordello. This New York-based band recasts the music of the Roma people within a kitchen-sink blend of rock, ska, reggae and more that they call “gypsy punk.” With Israeli, Russian and Roma members, Gogol Bordello’s music reflects the immigrant experience as it’s unfolded from Ellis Island to the outer boroughs and suburbs of today’s America. (A.P.)

Rodrigo y Gabriela. Not officially an indie-rock act, but what could be more independent than playing heavy metal infused with Latin rhythms on acoustic guitars. The Mexican couple, together since their teens, did their apprenticeship busking in Dublin, Ireland, where they’re still based. Now, they’re packing in crowds who scream in wonder at their Metallica covers and originals inspired by every guitar tradition on Earth. (A.P.)

Beck. Indie big brother Beck paved the way for goofy style-rappers Gray Kid and the Cool Kids but on some of his albums, his cultural mash-ups produce some uncomfortable moments. Who doesn’t cringe when the white Scientologist adopts the cholo accent? But if not for him, most hipsters wouldn’t have Os Mutantes or Caetano Veloso on their iPods. (M.W.)

Zoe/Kinky. Pop’s “Latin explosions” have come and gone, but bands like Zoe and Kinky, from Mexico City, point to a different future. Zoe takes cues from Brit-pop bands such as the Stone Roses; Kinky’s house beats, rock guitars and jubilant brass meld into a pan-cultural party-starter. Both bands sing in Spanish, play stadiums in Latin America -- and remain obscure to Anglo audiences stateside. But let’s be real: U.S. audiences are growing more Latin every day. (A.B.)

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Bloc Party. Brit-pop-obsessed Americans’ latest favorite band looks more like modern London than the all-white lineups of ‘90s-bred bands such as Oasis or Pulp. Led by Kele Okereke, a Liverpool-born offspring of Nigerian parents, the multicultural band has fans from all over the musical spectrum, though its sound is distinctly alternative rock. (C.A.)

Lily Allen. The sounds Allen embraced on her debut album, “Alright, Still,” were so unexpected that this young petite singer caught the music world by surprise. She employs a coolly delicate hip-hop sensibility and takes her rhythmic cues from U.K. ska bands such as the Specials. There’s a relaxed, almost lounge-like flow to her music, but a drum ‘n’ bass influence is always around the corner. (T.M.)

Calexico. Joey Burns, John Convertino and an ever-shifting band of friends straddle not only the U.S.-Mexico border but lots of other ones too. Their sunbaked rock is like wandering into a small desert town’s thrift store -- lots of bright curios, old surfboards and everything covered in dust. On any of the group’s six albums, Calexico mixes Mariachi, fado, surf and Esquivel-style space-age dynamics. (M.W.)

Spoon. It’s hard to picture a band that could be any whiter than Spoon -- a pasty indie rock quartet from Austin, Tex. Known for minimal guitar parts and the slashing vocals of Britt Daniel, Spoon discovered a groove on its last two albums. When Daniel titles a song “Black Like Me,” he’s talking about his soul, and soul bleeds through its current sound. (T.M.)

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CSS. These wild Brazilian kids know that the best kind of party music is made with everything but the kitchen sink -- and even that you should probably rip off the wall and throw in too. On Cansei De Ser Sexy’s debut album, they frolic through disco, metal and art-rock, applying layers of trash and sleaze, dropping in bits of Portuguese and references to Paris Hilton. One of the leading lights of the indie dance movement. (M.W.)

Fall Out Boy. When Fall Out Boy let Jay-Z open the group’s 2007 album “Infinity on High,” the move smacked of a bid by the former underground emo act to conquer Top 40. It probably was, but these suburban pop-punk kids have a hip-hop affection that runs deeper than their business smarts. The single “This Ain’t a Scene, It’s an Arms Race” had a rhythm that bounced like a Timbaland song, and the act turned to R&B; superstar Babyface to produce two songs on “Infinity.” (T.M.)

Bjork. With her cupid-bow lips and big marble eyes, Bjork looks like a manga character, one who delights in kicking down genre and cultural walls. In her long, sparkling career, the Icelander has co-written a song for Madonna, collaborated with Timbaland, Matmos, a Japanese string octet and an all-female Icelandic choir. (M.W.)

Burial. There are no reliable photographs of the human being behind Burial, the reclusive UK dubstep producer who barely gives interviews and has yet to reveal any specifics of race, sex or the possibility that Burial is a fictional character. Yet Burial’s music, a hazily minimalist blend of dub reggae, robotic pitch- shifted soul, slowed-down jungle and ambient static, perfectly encapsulates a modern Lon- don where different anxious races, classes and cultures are thrust together amid the post-industrial rust and rain. (A.B.)

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Apollo Heights. There may be no stereotypically whiter genre of music than shoegaze. The very name implies staring at expensive effects pedals through art-damaged haircuts instead of, you know, dancing. But the line between My Bloody Valentine and race-mixing English rave culture is a thin one, and self-described “soulgazers” Apollo Heights blur it completely. Consisting of five black men and one black woman, Apollo Heights pairs the gang-falsetto vocals of TV on the Radio with the trebly crunch of Ride or Slowdive. (A.B.)


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