In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.
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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher
The one time I stuck my head into the Lion of Judah House of Rastafari on North Bedford Street, I did not sign a card to become a “member” of a “church,” didn’t leave with any of the cannabis items on offer, didn’t avail myself of the selection of used DVDs that appeared to be for sale. (I think Bruce Almightywas in there? OK.) The place felt like a sparsely appointed bachelor flop, with even less furniture and an order of magnitude more weed on display. The whole atmosphere was dispiriting and made my skin crawl. I couldn’t really bring myself to stay for long.
For others in Madison, the experience has gone beyond vague discomfort. Most of the public conversation and media coverage around Lion of Judah has revolved around the debate around legalizing cannabis and the seemingly evergreen comedy provided by college-town Rastafari appropriation. The self-proclaimed Rastafari church is something of a harebrained scheme to openly distribute big old nuggets of weed under the banner of religious freedom. It feels like something Seth Rogen left on a bar napkin while spitballing ideas for screenplays: “So these two white guys figure out that maybe they can get high, and the law can’t touch them as long as they call it a ‘sacrament’? Wacky things ensue!” (The actual legalities of it are way more complicated, of course.)
As the word began spreading about Lion of Judah last month, I started hearing from queer folks, women, and people of color who found the vibe unsettling. And then there’s the organization’s Facebook page, which has been posting bizarre memes about feminism, trans people, and “straight pride.” Needless to say, the homophobia and sexism expressed in these posts has upset people, prompting a wave of critical comments and Facebook reviews. Lion of Judah and its defenders have responded with an ever more bizarre spiral of posts claiming that these critics are simply motivated by “heterophobia.” Plus, the conversation Lion of Judah is having about cannabis just plain sucks. Yes, it should be legalized, as long as everyone with a current conviction for minor drug offenses is retroactively cleared and released from incarceration. As more states and localities explore different levels of decriminalization and more businesses find ways to make money from weed, poor communities and communities of color are still living with the fallout of the war on drugs. But the Lion of Judah folks don’t show much awareness of this fundamental imbalance.
It gets even uglier. Dana Pellebon, best known for her work in Madison’s theater community and as an owner of now-closed downtown venue The Frequency, went over to House of Judah last week to try and talk with its founders about cultural appropriation. Just bringing up the subject was too much for these guys. In a video Pellebon posted, three men quickly hustle her out of the storefront, and audibly questioned her racial heritage (Pellebon is black) and called her a “neanderthal.” One of the men pushed her.
Pellebon then went on the May 10 edition of WORT’s Friday 8 O’Clock Buzzshow to talk about it, and so far the resulting segment is the only piece of local coverage that has focused on Lion of Judah’s messed-up politics. Currently the only way to hear it is through WORT’s audio archives, but Buzz host Jonathan Zarov and the show’s producers deserve credit for actually having this conversation. Plus, it’s worth a listen for the context Pellebon provides about race, mass incarceration, and Rastafari itself.
“I know that there is not a scenario that would happen in Madison where there were a bunch of black men doing the same thing, online, posting things, selling weed out of their quote ‘storefront,’ and that they wouldn’t be arrested,” Pellebon said.
And that’s the crux of the problem. City officials responded to Lion of Judah with a sternly worded letter and other enforcement actions that will probably drive it into the ground soon, but we all can guess how swift and violent the response would be if a group of black people hatched such a scheme in broad daylight. If Lion of Judah’s founders were leveraging their position and sticking their necks out to push for real policy change—expunged criminal records, or, I don’t know, any kind of effective organizing whatsoever to support marijuana decriminalization at the state capitol—it might be a different story. But as it is, it’s criming while white and it’s creepy as hell.
New this week:
DJ Speedsick discusses his unsettling approach to noise and techno.
Jamie Dawson considers the themes of family, inheritance, and identity that run through two art shows at the Overture Center.
Loren Sommer reflects on the Milwaukee Bucks’ rise from stagnation.
Grant Phipps speaks with Alex Koi of Detroit experimental band Saajtak, who play this Friday at the Madison Children’s Museum.
The Record Store Dropouts podcast digs deeper into Mitski’s recent show in Madison.
Elsewhere on the Madison internet: The Verge checks in on that building Foxconn is supposedly buying downtown. Slow Pulp releases a new EP. Show announcements from Flying Lotus (August 21, Sylvee), Melvins with Redd Kross (September 25, High Noon Saloon), and Angel Olsen (November 13, Sylvee).
This week’s Madison calendar: Labrador at The Wisco. The year’s first outdoor Foshizzle party in James Madison Park. And more.