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.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Twin Cities: I Will Be Facilitating a Series of FREE Youth Spoken-Word Workshops Through TruArtSpeaks

The Be Heard youth poetry slam series starts in January, and we (TruArtSpeaks) are going to be in a lot of schools between now and then. But we also want to make sure that as many youth as possible have access to us, in case they want to get some feedback, ask some questions, or just build with one another.

So over the next few weeks, I'll be facilitating a series of FREE workshops open to anyone between the ages of 13 and 19. If you're planning on slamming in January, this will be a space to sharpen your skills and work on your craft. Even if you're not into slam, we'll still talk about writing and performance, do some writing, workshop poems, and just share ideas. Feel free to come to one, a couple, or all five:

Saturday, 11/22 at Intermedia Arts; 1-3pm (2822 Lyndale Ave. S. MPLS)
If you can only make it to one, this one is going to be a little more stand-alone than the others, and we'll cover a lot of stuff. It's also a collaboration with Intermedia, so please register for this one at this link.

Wednesday, 12/3 at Rondo Library Room CH (90 W. 4th St. STP); 3-5pm 

Sunday, 12/7 at the Landmark Center Room 408 (75 5th St. STP); 3-5pm 

Friday, 12/12 at MPLS Central Library Room N-402 (300 Nicollet Mall MPLS); 3-5pm

Wednesday, 12/17 at the Landmark Center Room 408 (75 5th St. STP); 3-5pm

Thanks to COMPAS for hooking up the space in the Landmark Center. These should be fun. If you are a young poet, or know any young poets, please spread the word.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Why I Vote

Sims, Toki Wright, me and Rep. Keith Ellison

This was originally going to be one of those bullet-point lists like "five reasons why voting matters" or whatever, particularly geared toward those of us at the more radical end of the progressive spectrum. Because there's definitely a lot to talk about. My own views continue to evolve and become more nuanced as I get older, talk to more people, and expand my perspective. What I've landed on is this:

Politicians don't create change; mass movements create change.

And if I've learned anything over the past decade or so of being involved in different movements, for different causes, in different roles/capacities, it's that movements aren't built by flawless, air-tight philosophical analyses; movements are built by relationships.

I know that election season has the power to co-opt activist energy. I know that voting for the lesser of two corporate-controlled evils has consequences. I know that even the most liberal major-party candidates are still super problematic about this issue or that issue.

But I also know people. Organizers I look up to, activists with years more experience than me, community leaders I trust, and love, and respect, most of whom are women, most of whom are people of color, most of whom have deeper roots in this community than me: these people are telling me to get out the vote. So I'm going to vote, and I'm going to strongly encourage everyone I know to vote.

We're not laboring under the delusion that any politician can "save" us. We are acknowledging the power of voting as one tactical move in a larger strategy. As I've written before:
Elections represent a few important opportunities. First, they’re winnable. Even small victories are something concrete and energizing, which helps sustain larger movements (when these victories are put in a means-to-an-end context and not treated as ends themselves). Second, they’re a great media force-multiplier: because so many people still see voting as the primary way to “get involved,” a specific candidate can sometimes spread the word about an issue further than a broader activist campaign can; they may even be able to mobilize people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved. Finally, elections can put good people into positions of power. We’re not just talking about the president here—this is about school boards, city councils, state reps and more. Local elections are a power bottleneck, and it just makes tactical sense to take advantage of them.
But again, my buy-in to all of this is people-centered. So shout to friends, neighbors and allies at NOC, TakeAction, ISAIAH, MPIRG and everyone locally and nationally doing this work, all of whom know damn well that this work doesn't end on election day.

Monday, October 27, 2014

New Video, Upworthy Again, #NotYourMascot Protest, Big First Ave Show, Other News

I finally reached 10k Facebook likes. In honor of that not really meaning anything, here's one of those "a million things happening at once" posts:

1. New spoken-word video for "Level Up: My Autobiography as a Learner"

I'm in grad school right now, and this was something I wrote for class. I didn't intend to make a video for it, but I think it captures some thoughts, tensions, and questions I've had about education-- and about educational systems-- for a while. If you're a student, staff, faculty or other person invested in education (or you just want to hear me talk for ten minutes), check it out.

2. Upworthy posted my poem "Action"
This is my third time on Upworthy. Grateful for the signal-boost, especially for a poem like this.

3. #NotYourMascot Protest this Sunday in Minneapolis
Washington is in town to play the Vikings this Sunday, and local organizers are preparing what's shaping up to be the biggest protest yet against the Washington team. Starts at 8:30am and ends up at TCF Bank Stadium at 10am. Find all the info here.

4. I'll be performing at Keith Ellison's annual GOTV concert that night
Also on Sunday, I'll be performing at this big show at First Ave. along with Toki Wright & Big Cats, Heiruspecs, Sims and more. Of course, my thoughts on voting, Democrats, and election season are nuanced and complex, but that's kind of why I wanted to play this show. It should be a lot of fun. Click the flyer for tickets and more info:

5. A Million Other Things.
Stay tuned here, and/or follow me on Twitter and Facebook for info and updates on some other big projects, including:
  • A huge year coming up for TruArtSpeaks, the organization I work with.
  • I got published in a book. Like, a real hold-it-in-your-hands, made-of-dead-trees book. The book is about Eminem of all things; Talib Kweli wrote the foreword, and I wrote the afterword: I think it's one of the best things I've ever written. I will post more in-depth on this later, hopefully with some thoughts on the book as a whole.
  • My new sampler CD (including some brand new songs, remixes, poems, re-mastered tracks and basically a collection of the best work I've done so far) isn't officially out for a while still, but it's totally out right now, if you can find me in real life.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Video for "Riverbed," the First Song From My New Project


This song was produced by Ganzobean, and shot/edited by Adam J. Dunn for his #LAAB series. We wanted to shoot something nontraditional, something that might communicate vulnerability, just a straight three minutes of my face, close up. I wouldn't normally do that for a video, but this song and its subject matter demanded a different approach.

If you like it, or if you can relate to it, or if you think someone, somewhere, might find something good in it, sharing is always appreciated.

This also happens to be the first song from my upcoming project, "A LOVE SONG, A DEATH RATTLE, A BATTLE CRY." It's a book, plus a compilation CD featuring some brand new songs, some never-before-heard remixes, some re-mastered versions of older songs, and basically, the best work I've ever done, all in one place. More info coming soon. Thanks for listening.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Wednesday: SHUT IT DOWN: A Night of Hip Hop, Poetry and Action to Disrupt Street Harassment


Twin Cities people: hope you can make it to this show. We're raising money for a very good cause, signal-boosting people through an interactive sign-making/photo-booth kinda thing, and showcasing a hell of a lineup of artists. Facebook event page here.

It'll also be an opportunity to plug into some of the work that's being done here in the TC around rape culture and sexual assault prevention-- organizations like SVC and the Aurora Center will be tabling, with resources and contact info.

This issue is important to me because I've found that making the connections between so-called "little things" and larger realities of harm and oppression is a central part of the work. It's easy for someone who doesn't experience catcalling, or online harassment, or other forms of harassment to write it off as no big deal. But it is a big deal. This stuff directly relates to systems of power and domination that make sexual assault on college campuses, in the military, and everywhere so horrifically widespread.

This event is about continuing to cultivate a platform of resistance, plugging people into organizations, and throwing a beautiful show at the same time. Hope to see you there.

Other Resources:

"Next Time Someone Says Women Aren't Victims Of Harassment, Show Them This"

Interview with Feminista Jones about #YouOkSis at the Atlantic

"Shit Men Say to Men Who Say Shit to Women on the Street"

Zerlina Maxwell on Street Harassment, Catcalling, and Rape Culture at Ebony

Interview with Tatyana Fazlalizadeh of "Stop Telling Women to Smile" at the Daily Beast