'We Are Family' Singer Joni Sledge Dies At 60

Joni Sledge, one of the original members of Sister Sledge, (second from left) posing with Rodney Jerkins (second from right), her niece Camille Sledge (left) and her cousin Amber Sledge in 2006 in Century City, Calif.

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Joni Sledge of the group Sister Sledge, best known for the iconic disco 1979 anthem We Are Family, has died at 60.

The group’s publicist, Biff Warren, said Sledge was found at home in Arizona and they have yet to determine a cause of death. She had not been ill, he said.

“We miss her and hurt for her presence, her radiance, and the sincerity with which she loved & embraced life,” the group said in a statement.

Sister Sledge was originally made up of Joni and three of her sisters — Debbie, Kim, and Kathy — though Kathy parted ways with the group in 1989. They hailed from Philadelphia and formed the group in the early 70s, inspired by their opera-singing grandmother.

Their biggest hit, “We Are Family”, written by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic, came eight years after they got together and during a difficult time for the group professionally.

“We were saying: ‘Well, maybe we should go to college and just become lawyers or something other than music, because it really is tough,'” Sledge told The Guardian in an interview last year.

The We Are Family recording session (their big hit was also the title of the album on which it was recorded) “was like a one-take party – we were just dancing and playing around and hanging out in the studio when we did it,” she added.

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Another song from the same album, “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” also climbed the charts and was later sampled in Will Smith’s hit 1998 single “Gettin’ Jiggy wit It.”

Sledge also “wrote several of the songs on, and produced, their album African Eyes (1997), which was nominated for a best-production Grammy,” according to the Guardian.

“Joni’s in her glory on stage,” her sister Kim said in a video from the group. “She’s exactly where she was created to be, and performing with her on stage, you see it and you feel it. She was born to perform.”

Sister Sledge was still touring, despite the fact that their biggest hit came out almost 40 years ago. They performed for Pope Francis in 2015, and last played as a group in October, as Rolling Stone reported. They were scheduled to play in Louisiana next week and had performances in Europe coming up.

“I can’t remember not singing,” Sledge said in a BBC interview in 2015, where she spoke about the enduring power of disco. “The word disco, I think, was a cool thing to say because it was the first time everyone gathered together just for the sake of fun. And dance music will never go away. It’ll be here forever.”

She concluded: “As long as people love to dance, we’ll be dancing.”

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Bus Plows Into Crowd In Haiti, Killing At Least 34

Gonaives, a city in northern Haiti, is seen in May 2016. On Sunday morning, a bus crashed into a parade in the city, killing at least 34 people and injuring 17.

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A bus plowed into a crowd of people in northern Haiti around 3 a.m. Sunday morning, killing at least 34 people and injuring 17.

The bus was driving from Cap Haitien to Port-au-Prince when it crashed into a “rara” parade in the city of Gonaives, reports the AP.

Rara is a type of Haitian music played on traditional instruments, with onlookers often joining in the procession.

Reuters reports that the driver and passengers are being held by police. Following the accident, people began throwing rocks at the bus and other vehicles.

The BBC reports further:

Witnesses gathered at the scene became hostile after seeing the driver attempt to flee, which caused further deaths and injuries, AFP reports, adding that they then tried to set the vehicle alight.

“The people who were not victims of the accident tried to burn the bus with the passengers inside,” said Faustin Joseph, a civic protection co-ordinator for the Artibonite region.

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“American Crime” Takes On Farming And Illegal Immigration With An Unsparing Lens

In Season Three: Episode Two- While Luis finds himself sinking further into servitude on the farm, Isaac tries to protect Coy from abusive conditions in the fields. Meanwhile, Jeanette begins to wonder if her family is down-playing a trailer fire, which killed a number of their undocumented workers.

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As in its past two seasons, ABC’s anthology series American Crime opens with a timely and provocative image. In a nondescript desert near the U.S./Mexican border, a group of men and women are being smuggled into the United States. They manage to cut through a gap in the wall that already divides the two countries. Quickly though, viewers learn that the red-capped man the show is asking us to follow isn’t interested in merely nabbing a farm job in nearby Texas or California. He has his eyes set on North Carolina. His reasons are slowly revealed throughout the show’s eight-episode run — as it turns out he’s looking for someone who might have gone missing from one of the farms in the state.

For producers John Ridley and Michael J. McDonald, the decision to set this season, which tackles immigration and labor, in North Carolina was both creatively and politically significant.

Not only does this Southern state have a long history of segregation, but the rising numbers of Latin American immigrants coming into its rural areas is rapidly changing the state. North Carolina stands as a microcosm of America today, a perfect tinder box that offers insights into immigration from a different vantage point. “We wanted to look at a place,” McDonald said, where that “wasn’t baked into the system, like California or Arizona, but a place where this influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America was a new phenomenon and how that was reflected in a state where there was a history of racial tension.” This is why the narrative about Luis Salazar (played by Benito Martinez), that red-capped man making his way to the North Carolina tomato farms who ends up witnessing the abuse and exploitation happening in these rural areas, feels so different from past attempts at putting a face on the illegal immigration debate.

“You say ‘slavery’ and people think you’re hysterical,” we hear social worker Abby Tanaka (played by Sandra Oh), say at one point early in the season as she speaks about the undocumented workforce in the state. “Well, we are not. In North Carolina alone 39 percent of the state’s 150,000 farm workers report being illegally trafficked or otherwise abused. That is physical abuse, sexual abuse, death threats and wage theft. There’s always the possibility of exposure to farm chemicals,” she says. The backdrop for all this is an agricultural industry that pumps over $200 billion into the American economy annually. Such fact-loaded scenes in American Crime don’t feel as heavy-handed because they underline the way stories about a young undocumented Mexican who goes missing, or about a young woman who’s raped by the men who manage the farm where she works, reflect a larger for-profit machinery at work.

Ridley singles out the Hesby family whose tomato farm is at the center of the season’s storyline. Their choice to hire a mostly undocumented workforce (via contractors) is a direct response to increased competition coming from other farms and from abroad. “You get the pressures that they’re under,” Ridley notes. “You get that they are being squeezed by some other organization.” That’s not to say the show is out to exonerate them. But nor is it out to blankly indict them. “No one person is so utterly heroic, and nor are they horrible,” he said. He believes that reducing the issue to border jumping negates the economic and political tensions that both create and sustain a farming system that would fail without the workers who enter the United States illegally.

In real life, the complexities abound and can’t be resolved at the end of a narrative arch.

Moises Serrano, an undocumented activist, has spent his entire life navigating the complexities. “Politicians try to simplify it but migration is an incredibly complex issue that cannot be boiled down to rhetoric and 140 characters in a tweet,” he says. Serrano was brought into the U.S. when he was 18 months old. His parents settled in Yadkin county in North Carolina where he grew up. His undocumented status has not derailed him from trying to get an education and a well-paying job, while advocating for immigration reform and the DREAM act. Serrano points out that the hostile political climate against undocumented workers in the U.S., particularly in North Carolina, has been bolstered by a slew of policies and programs passed in the last decade. He points to the REAL ID Act of 2005, which modified the requirements needed to be issued a driver’s license and to the expansion of e-Verify, an employment-verification program that checks a worker’s immigration status, as moves that pushed undocumented people out of public spaces.

The workers’ vulnerability makes the stories in this season of American Crime prescient. They uncover working and living conditions that most Americans rarely get to see. “Workers go missing all the time,” one woman tells Luis while on his search for his son, “Nobody cares.”

When doing research for this season, McDonald said he kept hearing a sense of fear from undocumented people when it came to asking for help, which he believes leads to an impunity that remains underreported and underrepresented. The show portrays the abuse and exploitation of workers in very bare terms: Farm workers refer to the fields as “The Green Motel,” where they sexually abuse the few women around; the cruel intimidation tactics that keep workers from leaving lest they lose their wages or risk deportation. These are compounded by the fact that many in that position feel unable to seek help. “They’re afraid to go to law enforcement or social workers for help,” said McDonald. A 2013 study by the University of Chicago found that “70 percent of undocumented immigrants reported they are less likely to contact law enforcement authorities if they were victims of a crime.”

Ridley says that “American Crime is less about crime and more about America.” And so while a 911 call opens this season (a Spanish-language speaker informs us in voice-over that there’s a body in the river), the show works hard to make its interwoven storylines make viewers grapple with the vision of America on their screens. Jeanette Hesby(played by Felicity Huffman) functions as an audience surrogate: upon learning of the deplorable conditions workers at her husband’s family farm are living under, she sets out to become informed, knowing that she has to turn her outrage into action.

“The amount of people this is happening to, and how they’re an invisible class that we have demonized, which is the worst thing about it. We’ve made them bad guys — ‘bad hombres,’ as our friend Donald Trump likes to say,” McDonald says. “But these are the people that are most abused in our society.” That’s what makes his heart break and what drives him to tell stories that open other people’s eyes not just the plight of these particular characters, but to the systemic problems they represent.

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Oregon Lumber Community Looks To Trump And Innovation To Survive

Lever Architecture’s Framework exterior rendering, a 148-foot structure that, when completed, will be the tallest timber building in North America.

Courtesy of LEVER Architecture

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Courtesy of LEVER Architecture

Traditionally, states that rely on the timber industry, like Oregon, haven’t had much to cheer in the last 30 years. Modernization of mills, economic changes and huge declines in logging led to a long downturn in the industry. During last year’s presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump promised to bring back timber in Oregon.

Some in the industry are hopeful, but others aren’t waiting. They’re moving ahead with innovations they hope are the key to survival.

Tall Timber

There’s a street corner in downtown Portland, Ore. where architect Thomas Robinson can stand today, and envision a dramatically different scene next year.

“What you’ll be seeing is a revolutionary 12 story, mass timber structure,” he says, “Really — a high rise timber building.”

Robinson’s firm Lever Architecture has designed a 148-foot structure that, when completed, will be the tallest timber building in North America.

Now you may be thinking — that’s a 148-foot match waiting to light.

But Robinson and his designers have studied how wood burns for four years. That knowledge helped them design a mass timber structure that meets the same fire standards as concrete and steel buildings. It’s designed to outperform its rivals in withstanding an earthquake. And then there’s the bonus of collaboration in a state, which like many others, is geographically and politically divided.

“It’s been a great way to connect urban Portland to rural Oregon,” says Robinson.

Crossing And Gluing And Building

The D.R. Johnson Lumber Company is about 200 miles south of Portland in the small town of Riddle, Ore. This is where they’ll make the key material for the Portland highrise, Cross Laminated Timber. CLT.

CLT is a pretty simple concept. You lay down a layer of boards length-wise, then a layer on top width-wise, then another layer the first direction. Up to 7 layers, all glued together, in one large panel. The criss-crossing creates a counter-tension that D.R. Johnson Chief Operating Officer John Redfield says makes the CLT panel both strong and flexible.

The panels are then used for easy-to-assemble construction.

Panels of cross laminated timber at DR Johnson. CLT is a pretty simple concept. You lay down a layer of boards length-wise, then a layer on top width-wise, then another layer the first direction.

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Tom Goldman/NPR

“The advantage of CLT is, we’re actually going to build your building right here in Riddle,” Redfield says. “[The material] is pre-designed, pre-engineered. They’ve got holes in them for mechanical and electrical and plumbing. They’ve got window holes. We load this on a truck in inverse order of how it’s going to be laid out on the job site, and we erect the building from the truck [in the right order].”

CLT has been made outside the U.S. for years and used around the world — including for refugee housing in Europe. When D.R. Johnson started making panels for sale three years ago, it was the first to do so in the country.

“We did, I think, all of us feel kind of a surge of excitement about the potential upside to it,” says company co-owner Valerie Johnson.

Innovating … Carefully

In 2013, Johnson went to a wood innovations meeting in Oregon. She says in such a tenuous industry as timber, it’s important to keep looking for ways to grow. At the meeting, she watched a presentation on CLT. The talk was compelling. The product was similar to some of the others her company made. So, Johnson decided to give it a go. Carefully.

D.R. Johnson started in 1951 and like many lumber companies in the state, it was hit by the timber downturn in the 1980s and 90s. The company shut three of its sawmills. Its workforce shrank by more than 350 people. Statewide, from 1980 to 2010, 300 mills closed, putting 30,000 people out of work.

So now, D.R. Johnson is going step by step. First they made a small CLT panel for testing; then they made panels to sell. Johnson says within the next six to 12 months, CLT production at her company should create 20 new jobs.

“I think the CLT market stands a really strong chance of being very successful here,” she says. “I hope I keep very healthy for a long time because I want to see these beautiful tall buildings built with wood.”

Workers at D.R. Johnson feed a layer of boards as part of the process of making CLT. They first made a small CLT panel for testing; then they made panels to sell. Johnson says within the next six to 12 months, CLT production at her company should create 20 new jobs.

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Tom Goldman/NPR

Others Innovating

Another company in Oregon is making big plywood panels for buildings.

And there’s more innovation to come.

CLT Stair at Albina Yard office building in Portland, OR. The market for wood products is changing.

Jeremy Bittermann/Courtesy of LEVER Architecture

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Jeremy Bittermann/Courtesy of LEVER Architecture

“I’m comfortable that there are other manufacturers in Oregon that are looking closely at this,” says Geoff Huntington. He’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives for the College of Forestry at Oregon State University.

“I’m sure that you’ll see others following soon,” he says.

The market for wood products is changing.

“It’s a new frontier,” says Huntington. “We’ve got a building industry, both architects and developers, that are looking at wood in a new way and in different ways than they have before.”

Architects like Thomas Robinson, who’s working on the Portland high rise, like the look of wood. The rural-urban connection Robinson talks about also is part of the new allure. Huntington says it’s the same idea as the farm-to-table concept of embracing locally produced ingredients for food. In the case of wood, call it forest to framing.

For all that’s positive, Huntington acknowledges the growing markets for these new products aren’t going to cure all that ails Oregon’s timber industry. Trade issues and decades-long battles over harvesting trees still exist.

Another 80 miles south of D.R. Johnson, the battle toll is evident. Where not even innovation could help.

We’ve Done Everything We Could

On a recent day in Cave Junction, Ore., Jennifer Phillippi stepped around debris on the grounds of Rough & Ready Lumber Company. She co-owns the company with her husband Link — it’s been in her family since 1922. But it shut down last year and now it’s being torn down.

“Since they started dismantling it, I just haven’t come out here,” Phillippi says as she gazes at the rubble of what used to be a sawmill. “It makes me sad.”

Rough & Ready was heavily reliant on timber from federally owned lands. Those lands became practically untouchable to logging in the early 1990s after court decisions to protect the Northern Spotted Owl.

Link and Jennifer Phillippi, co-owners of Rough and Ready Lumber in Cave Junction, OR survey the remnants of their saw mill. The mill shut down for good in February 2016. What’s not been claimed in auction is being torn down.

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Jennifer Phillippi says her company tried to innovate its way through the downturn.

“Y’know we’re nimble, we’re small and we’ve done everything we could to sort of adjust,” she says.

They built a co-generation power plant. They upgraded equipment and made sawmill improvements. Ultimately, none of it mattered because they didn’t have enough logs to cut.

Eighty-five workers lost their jobs when Rough & Ready closed for good in 2016. The layoffs were another punch to an already dwindling local economy in a town of not quite 1,900 people. More services were cut. There’s one sheriff’s patrol, only during the day. Asked whether that makes him worry about his personal safety, former Rough & Ready employee Lonnie Adams, 60, says no.

Former Rough & Ready employee Lonnie Adams, 60, worked at Rough and Ready for more than 35 years.

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Tom Goldman/NPR

“I pack a gun everywhere I go,” Adams says. “I never used to.”

Cave Junction could be any small rural community marred by unemployment and the threat of crime. But longtime residents note, with pride, the citizen-organized group that tries to fill the law enforcement void with nightly car patrols; locals have fought to keep open the library. It’s communities like this where you’ll find hope in the new administration. Lonnie Adams remembers Donald Trump’s campaign promise to help Oregon’s timber industry. Adams thinks it could’ve saved Rough & Ready, where he worked for 35 years.

“I wish they would’ve held off [shutting down the company] a little longer until Trump got in office,” he says. “He probably will bring timber back because he’s a pretty smart man in my eyes. I wanted him for President. But, it’s too late for here.”

Balance Possible But Not Easy

Back up in Riddle, D.R. Johnson forges ahead with its innovative CLT production. Unlike Rough & Ready, D.R. Johnson hasn’t been so reliant on federal forests. But it still feels the pinch.

“We scrape for the logs for this old mill here, every month,” Johnson says. “Our guys have to hustle to find them.”

D.R. Johnson’s Steve Allen uses a block of wood to make sure boards are aligned properly before the CLT panel enters the pressing machine at far left.

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Tom Goldman/NPR

Johnson and others in the industry talk about increasing timber harvests without over harvesting. Some environmental groups remain wary and continue to block timber sales, mostly on federal lands, with lawsuits. While the battle continues, at least one prominent forest ecologist says it doesn’t have to.

“Could you increase the timber harvest from the federal lands in a way that would be ecologically as well as socially responsible?” asks Jerry Franklin of the University of Washington. “The generic answer to that is absolutely — yes.”

But the specifics, he says, get very complex. And politicized. At least one bill that attempted to hit the sweet spot between harvesting and conservation, remains stalled in Congress.

Meanwhile, the quest for timber innovation continues.. Groundbreaking on the nation’s tallest timber high rise building, is expected this summer in Portland.

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Ousted South Korean President Leaves Presidential Palace

Ousted South Korea’s former President Park Geun-hye, center, arrives at her private home in Seoul, South Korea, on Sunday. She vacated the presidential palace and returned to her home two days after the Constitutional Court removed her from office.

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Two days after the Constitutional Court removed her from office, ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye left the presidential palace and returned to her home.

As NPR’s Elise Hu reports, Park stayed in the presidential compound for 50 hours after being stripped of power. Three people died in protests following the impeachment this weekend.

She released her first statement since her ouster, in which she apologized for failing to fulfill her duties as president. But she also struck a defiant tone. “Although it will take time, I believe the truth will certainly come out,” she said, according to the AP.

The AP describes the scene as Park returned to her home in the Gangnam area of Seoul:

“Park was greeted by hundreds of supporters who thunderously chanted her name and waved the South Korean flag as her bodyguard-flanked black sedan slowly rolled onto a path near the house. Park, dressed in a dark blue coat and her hair tied in a bun, smiled and waved from inside the car. She then stepped out and shook hands and exchanged brief words with members of her political party before going inside the house.”

Now that she is a private citizen, Park could face criminal corruption charges related to allegations that she conspired with her friend Choi Soon-sil.

The impeachment comes after months of political turmoil and protests. Polls of South Koreans before Park’s impeachment found that 70 percent of Koreans wanted Park out.

Park is South Korea’s first democratically elected leader to be forced from office; she was also the country’s first female head of state. Her father, Park Chung-hee, was a dictator during the Cold War era, before being assassinated in 1979.

The country’s prime minister, Hwang Kyo-ahn, is now acting president. A snap presidential election will be held in May, and liberal Moon Jae-in is the current favorite. He lost to Park in 2012.

Relations with North Korea remain tense. A week ago, North Korea test-fired a handful of missiles into the Sea of Japan.

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Modi's BJP Party Wins Heart of India Voters

Supporters of India’s Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) celebrate elections results outside the party headquarters in New Delhi on March 11, 2017.

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Young Indians want a more prosperous country in their lifetime and appear to have seized on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to deliver it.

Headlines following the elections declared Modi, “King of the Heartland” after results in state assembly elections. Modi’s BJP Party swept the polls in two of five states –- Uttrakhand and Uttar Pradesh (UP).

But it is the vast UP with its plains that stretch to Nepal that resonates the loudest. With Modi’s personal appeal, his party secured 80 percent of the 403-seats up for grabs in the legislative assembly of the state that is the most important battleground in the country.

Poor and agricultural, Uttar Pradesh is emblematic of India, suffering power shortages, poor education and challenged sanitation.

All of the country’s fault lines run thru the UP — caste, class, communal divisions.

Modi’s BJP engineered the victory in part by fielding candidates who spring from “Other Backward Classes,” a term used by the Indian government to classify castes which are socially and educationally disadvantaged. The party with its strong Hindu base did not draw a single member from the UP’s sizeable Muslim community.

Modi captured the public imagination, in the words of the Asian Age newspaper, barnstorming the state “as though the devil was on his heels,” promising to lift up its 220 million people.

Adding to the drama of India’s election was the cliffhanger outcome of the country’s so-called “demonetization.” In a political gamble, Modi last year ordered all 500- and 1,000-rupee notes pulled from circulation, a bid to force anyone who held large stashes of unreported wealth to come clean. The move pulled most of India’s cash from circulation, occasioning a massive money shortage. The election was seen as a referendum on Modi’s decision. The efficacy of the exercise is still unclear, but voters, fed up with corruption, evidently agreed that a crackdown was in order.

With this new mandate, Modi will likely continue to go after financial corruption. He will also be able pursue other reform such as greater tax compliance.

The win in the UP improves the math for Modi’s party in the Upper House of Parliament. The members are elected from the state assemblies, and the UP has 31 members in the 245-seat body.

But Modi’s party did falter in three other states. There were fractured verdicts in the western state of Goa and the northeastern of Manipur. The large northern state of Punjab went resoundingly anti-incumbent, handing the state to the opposition Congress Party, run by the dynasty of the Gandhi family.

The sweeping victory in Uttar Pradesh, however, gives Modi a head start for the national election in 2019 when he’s expected to seek a second term.

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