Wednesday, February 18, 2015

TruArtSpeaks, Youth Poetry, and the Future

(A haunting, powerful poem from Tamera Larkins during prelims)

A lot of my time and energy these days is going toward TruArtSpeaks, the organization here in Minnesota that organizes the annual youth poetry slams, as well as a bunch of other programs based around critical literacy, youth leadership, and social justice through spoken-word and hip hop. We've got some big news, but I wanted to add to that big news with a more personal note.

I really believe in this work.

I was a late bloomer in many ways, and credit spoken-word and poetry slam culture with helping me develop as a critical thinker, an educator, an activist, as well as a public speaker/performance artist. None of that came naturally to me. But as I grew up in this culture, surrounded by other artists and activists-- mentors, peers, and the next generation-- a lot of stuff kind of clicked into place for me. I get to see those "click" moments all the time now, doing this work in schools and other spaces. I get to witness the power of this practice and culture to literally change people's lives, to frame ideas in more powerful and immediate ways, and to push back against all of the intertwined oppressions that face so many of us, not just youth.

I could ramble on about all that (and probably will at some point), but for now, I just want to encourage everyone to SEE what is happening, to listen to these brilliant young people, and to stay engaged. A few thoughts on doing that:

YOUTH: Be Heard prelims are over, but will start again next January. If you want to slam, mark your calendars. In the meantime, there are a few other ways to get down:
  • The Re-Verb all-ages open mic happens every Thursday at Golden Thyme Cafe in St. Paul at 6pm. Come and share your work, or just watch. It's a beautiful space with a very supportive community.
  • The Flip the Script conference is coming up on 2/22; it's free and will put you in touch with tons of other people interested in all this.
  • Apply to the TruArtSpeaks Youth Advisory Board and help plan the future of the organization.
  • Connect on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.
ADULTS: A few ways to get involved:
  • DONATE. I actually give money monthly to this organization, because I have first-hand knowledge of how that money gets spent, and how worthwhile it is. Donate here.
  • VOLUNTEER. Email for volunteer opportunities at our events.
  • NETWORK. If you are a teacher, youth worker, parent, conference organizer, nonprofit worker, or anyone who comes into contact with youth, please spread the word. Bring us into your spaces. Get in touch about potential programs or organizational collaborations:
  • SHOW UP. For real. The five prelims so far have been absolutely unbelievable, and semifinals and finals are this March. Show up, be loud, support these youth, and have an experience.

Feel free to get in touch with any questions. Hope to see you at the events.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Report-Back on Performing and Speaking at the United Nations

So that was something I've never done before. This past week, Iceland and Suriname co-sponsored (along with other partners) a two-day event at the United Nations called the Barbershop Conference, aimed at "changing the discourse among men on gender equality." I was invited to perform and say a few words.

The concept was that it was a space to engage men (particularly men at the UN) around men's roles in the struggle; unfortunately, that's a pretty easy thing to misinterpret, and some of the early coverage presented that as "all the men are going to get together to solve gender inequity." I'm happy to say that from what I saw, this definitely wasn't the case. It was more about the importance of meaningful solidarity, and about bringing the conversation into spaces to which men have disproportionate access (while also challenging why that is in the first place).

As for a report-back, it's really making me think about the different spaces in which the struggle for gender equity manifests. As some of my social justice-minded friends probably expect, the conference (from what I saw of it) was not perfect-- it was pretty binary-centric, and while this was the UN, an even more intersectional lens would have been nice; all in all, it was fairly surface-level stuff, and like so many things, I find myself torn between critiquing that for being surface-y and applauding that for being a continuation and validation of the work that so many are doing in their communities on such a public, far-reaching stage.

There was some really good stuff, too. Phumzile Mlambo, Executive Director of UN Women, gave a powerful closing speech on how "achieving gender equality is about disrupting the status quo, not negotiating it," and it was cool to see that kind of framework reflected at such a high policy-making level. The conference also made me reflect on how much impact more radical voices are having, and how the conversations being had on Twitter and in feminist spaces are definitely bleeding into this larger movement and shaping the larger narrative... sometimes slowly, but surely.

The key will be what happens next, obviously, in terms of concrete change, but it does really seem like the conversation-- and the culture(s)-- are shifting. I heard lots of mention of the importance of both dismantling/challenging our thinking about masculinity on an individual level, and the importance of challenging systems, structures, and institutional practices that silence, exclude, and harm women and gender-nonconforming people. I think that both/and framework is key. The host/moderator, Al Jazeera's Femi Oke, also did a great job making sure that people spoke in concrete terms rather than platitudes. Again, we'll see what happens next. I'm grateful to the Permanent Mission of Iceland to the UN for allowing me to take part.

You can watch the second day's program here.

Thursday, January 01, 2015

Guante: "A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry" Free Sampler Mix Available Now, New Video Too

I wanted to kick off 2015 with something special. That's the new video for "You Say Millionaire Like It's a Good Thing," one of two new Ganzobean-produced tracks on this new album. Adam J. Dunn made it.

The new album is a mix of some old songs, some new songs, some exclusive remixes and re-recordings, and some live poetry recordings. It also features design work by Rogue Citizen. Since I travel so much to perform but don't exactly "tour" in the traditional sense, I wanted to be able to sell something that captured the best of what I've made, and I think this album does that. If you don't know much about me or my work, it's the perfect place to start. If you've been following me, there are a few surprises (listen for new verses, lyrical change-ups, and more). Either way, it's free.

Here's the official press release with a little more info:

Saturday, December 27, 2014

2014 Guante Year in Review

As always, this is kind of a journaling space for me. I'm not here to break down everything that was important in 2014, just sharing some of the stuff that I got a chance to be a part of this past year. It's a way to both celebrate some victories and be accountable to myself and others.

(photo by Monica Rivera)

Most of my time and energy this year was spent performing at colleges, conferences and other spaces in every corner of the country. I feel honored to have been able to connect with so many people in so many different places this year. And that's all on top of local shows like the "Shut it Down" night of speaking out against street harassment, the "Let the Bars Breathe" poetry-of-rap show, the "Page, Stage, Engage" show which sold out the Whole at the U of MN, and other shows I organized or helped organize. Booking for 2015 now.

2. SIFU HOTMAN (Guante, deM atlaS & Rube): EMBRACE THE SUN
My last year-in-review also kicks off with Sifu Hotman. But where last year's three-song suite was a fun little side project, this extended version is one of the best full albums I've ever helped create. With support from BBC Radio, Ego Trip, Amazing Radio, Bandcamp's "New and Notable" feature, and more blog write-ups than I usually get, it also became one of my more successful projects. And with Josh's new success as part of the Rhymesayers family, I'm hoping even more people discover it; get it here.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Some Favorite Responses to the "All Lives Matter" Crowd

I made a collage of some of responses to the "but shouldn't it be ALL LIVES MATTER?" crowd.

Because pointing out and organizing around the fact that black people are disproportionately targeted, harassed and killed by police does not take away from the fact that other people are also affected, that the recent murders of police are also tragic, or that other lives are not also valued.

If you're more offended by the phrase #blacklivesmatter than the reality that prompted it, I would challenge you to reflect on that.


This Is Not a Think Piece: Turning Outrage into Action from Ferguson to the Twin Cities

Planting Seeds vs. Planting Crops: A Few Thoughts on How Artists Can Support Social Movements

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Planting Seeds vs. Planting Crops: A Few Thoughts on How Artists Can Support Social Movements

That's a good question. Let's plan. Whether the end-goal is overthrowing capitalism and abolishing the police, or just getting more progressive people elected to office, the medium-term goal is the same: building a mass movement.

Like I say in one of those tweets, building a mass movement is everyone's job, and everyone has to figure out how best to leverage their strengths, passions, resources, access, etc. to contribute to the larger struggle. I think of teachers calling audibles in their lesson plans in order to talk about current events. I think of religious leaders doing the same thing during their sermons. I think of workers organizing anti-oppression committees or even just book clubs in their workplaces. I think of athletes wearing #blacklivesmatter shirts. I think of online communities. I think of students. I think of young people. Everyone has some kind of power or access to space that can help this movement grow.

And for artists, I see a lot of potential. I'm not really interested in the "you have a platform so you HAVE to speak out" argument. For me, it's more a matter of "you have a platform, so why not speak out?" Whether or not it is our responsibility, it is definitely an opportunity. Especially for touring artists-- poets, MCs, bands, etc.-- that have the privilege of regularly being up in front of thousands of people all over the country; that's a platform with enormous potential.

We tour through blue and red states. We tour through cities of all sizes. We tour through colleges, big and small, public and private. We tour through communities that may not have the same kind of access to the programs, conversations, and movement plug-in points that other communities have.

Even beyond the geography, artists have the power to reach individuals who may have zero interest in activism or social justice. When I see five hundred (mostly young, mostly white) kids at a rap show, chanting along to anti-authoritarian lyrics, I see potential. The simple act of standing on a stage and challenging an audience to think critically is a good thing. It is the planting of a seed.

But I've been thinking a lot lately about the difference between planting wildflowers and planting crops.

As artists, it's easy to plant seeds. If I play a hundred shows, and I know that my material is social justice-oriented,  or even just critical thinking-oriented, I know that I'm doing something good. I know that listeners will take these ideas and engage with them in whatever way makes sense to them.

But I think the question isn't "is what I'm doing good?" The question is "is what I'm doing as good/powerful/transformative as it could be?" I obviously don't have all the answers, but I am challenging myself to do better. Here are a few practical ideas for transforming artistic space into activist space; this is just where my head has been at lately-- please add other ideas or thoughts in the comments:

1. Connecting the Audience to Concrete Actions and Organizations
One of the first steps, for me, is demystifying the idea of activism. You don't have to a brilliant anarchist mastermind with a black bandana over your face to get involved. You do have to show up, though, and I think one obstacle to building a mass movement is that a lot of people just don't know where or how to show up. Rage is valuable. Critique is valuable. Raising awareness is valuable. But we can do more. A few ideas:
  • Invite a local activist to have thirty seconds of stage time to talk about an upcoming event, or even just have a table by the merch table where they can hand out flyers and collect emails. It's about specificity too; I don't think we always invite every activist group to every show. I think it's about making connections to what's happening in the world right now.
  • If that can't happen, one strategy I've been using lately is just taking a few minutes out of the performance to ask the audience for resources: what are links, organizations, events, etc. that everyone else needs to know about? Use the knowledge in the room.
  • Key word: specificity. Again, it's cool to encourage people to "go out and do something," but if there are opportunities to connect individuals to specific, existing movements, even better. And even if we don't love a particular organization, knowing that they exist helps people envision what could be and build something better.

2. Breaking Out of the "Shut Up and Play" Mentality
You can do a lot with an hour of stage time. Most of us (including myself, for 90% of my career) just perform for an hour, maybe with some awkward banter between songs/poems. But what else can we do?

This may be easier for spoken-word poets, who more often perform in spaces that lend themselves to facilitated discussions or interactive stuff, but I think this is a good thing for all artists to at least think about. Some of the most rewarding experiences I've had on stage have been when I've decided to not just do my ten best songs or whatever and really try to connect to the audience, to have a conversation, to do something together beyond "look at me for an hour because I'm great."

At one show, we took a big chalkboard and I asked audience members to write down actions they could take regarding police brutality and the prison-industrial complex. This was during those twenty minutes at every show between the listed start-time and the actual start-time. By the time we did start the show, the board was full of ideas:
I'm not saying that that's the most transformative thing you can do on stage, but I think it is an example of how breaking the fourth wall and being more interactive can really add to the power of an event. Have a discussion. Play a short video. Stage theatrical disruptions. Be creative. We frown upon teachers who just lecture for an hour straight; I think we can hold performing artists to a similar standard.

3. Taking Signal-Boosting to the Next Level
Retweeting people who know what they're talking about is good. Posting links to articles we think people should read is good. But I think a lot of this is done haphazardly-- we happen to see something, and then happen to RT it.

I think there's room for more intentionality here. And it doesn't have to be any revolutionary reframing of how we do social media, just a little extra thought. A few tactics:
  • Make more of an effort to signal-boost on-the-ground activists and not just media talking-heads. The latter group can have some great analysis, but getting the voices of the people really in the trenches out there is important. This also relates to making sure that we're signal-boosting the people who are directly affected by the issue.
  • Whenever an artist with a lot of followers speaks out about an issue, that's good. But I also think that there is a continuum of value at play. Posting a statement or a rant is good. Posting a rant with a link to an article with more information is maybe better. Posting a rant with a link to an article and info on an upcoming action is better still. It's all about making connections.
There are weeks when I don't post anything self-promotional. Just links and resources. And yeah, I lose some followers who aren't trying to hear that stuff, but I gain more. This isn't just altruism. Especially with how Facebook's algorithm works today (explicitly self-promotional posts are more likely to stay invisible to fans); posting about current events and struggles just makes sense.

A Million Other Ideas
Admittedly, these are pretty surface-level actions. There is even more room for arts spaces to be fully integrated into activist movements, and for artists to plug in in ways that are even more intentional and focused. But I think it starts here, thinking about space. Reclaiming space. Transforming space. Leveraging access to space.

I also think it's hard to have a general conversation, since there are so many different approaches to practicing art. What works for some people won't work for others. What is effective for an artist who holds one identity may not make sense for an artist who doesn't hold that same identity, or live in that same community, or have access to that same fanbase. But there is always something that works. Beginning to think more strategically is a first step.

Finally, note that there's nothing here about the art itself. I love explicitly political art, and I encourage artists to talk about stuff that matters in their work, but I also know that you do not have to make explicitly political art to engage with these practices. You do not have to have all the answers or know everything about every issue to engage with these practices. You do not have to make less money. You also do not have to radically change how you do business-- a lot of the stuff here is really practical and easy to do.

We all plant seeds, and that's good work. But while wildflowers are beautiful, crops are revolutionary. Art, by itself, cannot change the world. But art, as one element of a mass movement, absolutely can. Feel free to add more thoughts or ideas in the comments.

A few links:

This Saturday: Million March MN: Million Artist Movement: "Artists and Allies with Black Leadership who are committed to channeling and connecting people and organizations who are doing the work of social justice."

Black Lives Matter Minneapolis: great central hub of local activity around police brutality actions.

This Is Not a Think Piece: Turning Outrage into Action from Ferguson to the Twin Cities: my piece collecting links, resources, and organizational info for people who want to plug in to the work being done here. Updated!

Jeff Chang & Bryan Komar: Culture Before Politics

Demetria Irwin at The Grio: Questlove is right, hip-hop is too silent on Ferguson and Garner

My poem "Quicksand" and some further thoughts on the "continuum of action"

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

December Updates: BE HEARD Youth Poetry Slam, Free Workshops, Ferguson Follow-Ups and More

Some stuff that people who know me might want to know about:

1. The 2015 BE HEARD Youth Poetry Slam Series Schedule Announced!
A lot of my focus in 2015 is going to be on working with TruArtSpeaks, and our first big program of the year is a youth poetry slam series that seeks to identify six young artists to represent MN at Brave New Voices. If you're between 13 and 19 years old, and have some work you want to share, you can come to as many of the January prelims as you want. Top prelim poets move to semifinals, and then the finals are in March. Check out the full schedule here.

2. I'm Facilitating Some FREE Youth Spoken-Word Workshops
The first one was a lot of fun, and there are four more coming up, all free, spread around the Twin Cities. Whether you're a veteran youth slam poet trying to get ready for Be Heard, someone who wants to explore the art and work on their craft, or just someone with something to get off their chest, check 'em out. Dates, locations and times here.

3. Ferguson and Police Brutality Activism Follow-Up Points
There's a lot more I could say in this point, but I'm trying to be intentional about my role and my responsibilities and not get all think-piecey on you. A couple of primary points:
  • I updated my list of links, organizations and resources for people in the Twin Cities who may want to get involved in some way, shape, or form, with the work that is being done. No organization is perfect, and no resource solves the problem on its own, but this could be a useful start for people who want to move beyond what's been done.
  • MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) is a very cool organization, and they're hosting a public meeting on next steps regarding police brutality on Saturday, 12/6. Check the details here.
  • I could post a million articles and links, but I'll just share this one: Ta-Nehisi Coates makes the historical and contextual connections that need to be made to really understand what Ferguson means, and what happens next.
4. Final 2014 Shows
Quick note on a few shows coming up:
  • Friday, 12/5 at Boston University; 7pm in CAS 211.
  • Monday, 12/8: featuring at the University of Minnesota's grand poetry slam finals. 6:30pm in Pillsbury 110.
  • Thursday, 12/18: Golden Thyme Cafe in St. Paul: Celebrating the final "Soul Sounds" open mic before a big relaunch next year. 6pm.
5. New Music Coming Very Soon
If you've been to a performance in the past month or so, you may already have my new album, "A Love Song, A Death Rattle, A Battle Cry." It's a collection of some of the best songs I've ever been a part of, plus some brand new tracks, some poems, some exclusive remixes and more. I'll be releasing it online very soon as well, so stay tuned.