Sunday, January 30, 2011

some thoughts on gender and language

Something I've been thinking about lately:

Of course, gender isn't really a simple binary.  But just in terms of language, there's no real feminine analogue to the word "guy."  Think about it:

"male" and "female"

"man" and "woman"

"boy" and "girl"

"guy" and... 

It seems like a little thing, but there are implications to this.  Because "guy" is used so often in American English, we end up needing a word that doesn't exist to refer to women-identified people in a playful, informal way.  And rather than round up to "woman," we round down to "girl."  Like "guys on the right, girls on the left" or "this party was all guys and just three girls."  Grown women are referred to by a word that is infantilizing or at least condescending.  All the time.

Similarly, most people address mixed gender groups like "hey guys," or "what do you guys think about..." and all that.  Because these kinds of English pronouns are gendered, there's no easy way to address mixed gender groups, unless you rearrange your sentence, something that takes some thought.  For most people, it's just easier to say "hey you guys" instead of "hey you all" or "hey everyone" or something that might be 10% more awkward syntactically.  Again, this has implications.  It implicitly says that the "default" for a human being is male, which is troubling.

In both instances, women (not to mention people who identify as anything other than male) get the short end of the stick; they're either made smaller or made invisible.  And this way of speaking is extremely normalized

Language is powerful.  While both of these examples may seem pretty innocent to many people, I do believe that they impact how our world functions.  And fixing them-- saying "woman" instead of "girl" and addressing mixed-gender groups by a non-gendered pronoun-- isn't really THAT difficult.  It's actually pretty easy.  It just takes some thought and intentionality.  I'm going to challenge myself to remember this.  Hopefully you will too. 

Any thoughts or disagreements or additions?

Monday, January 24, 2011

Some Fun, Unique Shows in the Next Two Weeks

Like most local artists, I have to walk the line between getting more people to hear my music (by playing shows) and avoiding promotion fatigue (by not playing shows).  It's a tricky balance, and I try to do it by playing lots of different kinds of shows-- not just rap shows in bars, but poetry stuff, variety shows, all-ages performances, fundraisers and more.  And traveling as much as possible, obviously.  Lots of cool stuff coming up in the next few weeks:

Thursday, January 27 through Saturday, January 29 at Patrick's Cabaret in Minneapolis: A three-day performance series called "Elements in Translation."  It's a bunch of performers, all playing short sets-- from dance to hip hop to poetry to electronic and more.  I know many of the performers, and there's a load of talent in this lineup; it'll definitely be worth the admission.  It's $10 at the door, or less if you get at me early and buy a ticket from me.  8pm.

Sunday, January 30 at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul:  Larry Lucio is throwing another Amplified Life showcase, and again, it's a lot of acts all playing shorter sets.  Me, Bao Phi, Lipset, Muja Messiah, Mike Dreams, Mally, Maria Isa, Palabristas, the Usual Suspects and more.  Kind of ridiculous.  If you like local hip hop, it's a buffet of talent.  8pm.  $5.

Thursday, February 3 at the Canvas Teen Arts Center in St. Paul: This will be the first night of the Canvas' spring hip hop concert series.  I'm the arts coordinator of the Canvas, and Kristoff Krane is our "artist-in-residency" for this series-- he'll be hosting and performing at all four events; the shows feature established acts and up-and-coming teen acts-- it's a great mix.  The first installment features me, Kris, Carnage, See More Perspective and Lady Ice & Man-Man.  It's a full lineup, and should be a lot of fun.  6-8:30pm.  Free.  All ages. (Also, be sure to check out GASP at Intermedia afterwards!)

After that, I'll be traveling with the Tribe for a few out-of-town shows: February 5 at the Root Note in La Crosse and February 11 at UW-Madison.  More being scheduled, but those are confirmed.



Saturday, February 12 at the Fineline in Minneapolis: The Best Love is Free Compilation Release Party.  Me & Big Cats! will be playing a set, along with Culture Cry Wolf, Soulcrate Music, Kristoff Krane, Wesley Opus & Botzy and DJ Fundo.  Me and Claire have a song on the compilation too, and it's something very different.  8pm.  $8.  Ticket info here.

Thursday: March 3 at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis: I'm honored to open up for Idris Goodwin, an incredible poet, rapper and writer.  Ed Bok Lee and Lisa Brimmer will also be performing.  7pm sharp.  I'm working on hooking up an afterparty that'll be more like a rap show, so stay tuned for that.

Lots more surprises coming up, including some new music.  It's going to be a great year.  For more timely info, follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Advice and Resources for Spoken-Word Artists

Had a great workshop at the Canvas a few weeks ago talking about taking your spoken-word and slam poetry to the next level.  Lots of engaging conversations, debates and more.  But as many people couldn't make it to that workshop, I wanted to share a few resources here for anyone who might be interested:

First, here's an essay I wrote about what standards I use when judging spoken-word.  I'm not saying that these are absolutely right (a couple of them, in fact, are highly arguable) but they're what's important to me as a listener.

Second, here's a collection of spoken-word videos that are worth watching at least once.  Not necessarily ALL my favorite poems (couldn't find good video links to some others), but a ton of really engaging, thought-provoking work.  And NONE of them are from Def Poetry Jam!

Finally, be sure to check out this page listing local open mics, slams and readings.  It doesn't have everything, and things change quickly, but it's the perfect place to start your journey.

Beyond that, I'd just add a couple of things:

1. Read lots of poetry.  You can't just watch YouTube videos.  On top of that, read lots of fiction and graphic fiction, watch movies, listen to new music and just devour art wherever you can find it.  If you're a slam poet, and all of your influences are other slam poets, that's probably not healthy.  Art is art, whether low or high, whether written or performed, whatever; find influences everywhere.

2. Find a group of people who will give you honest, constructive, helpful feedback.  They can be friends, other poets, an online community or whatever.  If you're a teen in the Twin Cities, be sure to check out the writing circle at the Canvas every Wednesday from 4:30-6 that I facilitate.  Desdamona also runs a writing circle at Intermedia Arts.  Or start your own writing/feedback circle.

3. Figure out why you write.  If it's for your own enjoyment or therapy, great.  But if you really want to build a career out of writing and performing, there are certain steps you have to be intentional about.  Have short, medium and long-term goals and be disciplined about them.  Talk to other artists who are where you want to be.  If you can find someone to be your "mentor," that can be a huge step.

4. This is probably the most important point, to me, and a mantra that I live by, as both a poet and a rapper: it is incredibly easy to be a good writer, good poet or good performer.  It is incredibly difficult to make art that is challenging, memorable and transformative.  Your goal is not to "write well" or wholly embody some formula or mold; it is to blow people's minds.  It is to make people see the world in a fundamentally different way than they did before.  It is to create art that can have a meaningful ripple effect over communities, over time and beyond your own death.  That certainly doesn't mean that every single poem you write has to change the world.  But when you're carving out a career for yourself, these points are important to keep in mind.

Feel free to leave any other ideas or tips or whatever in the comments!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Local Hip Hop Artists to Watch in 2011

Again, just trying to fill in the spaces where the local media misses some things.  Here are a few Twin Cities hip hop artists to watch in 2011.  I'm also going to include some constructive criticism.  Not because I'm a hater, but because as much as ignoring or not knowing about hip hop acts isn't good for the scene, blindly cheerleading for them is also unhealthy.



Sims: Just as 2010 was Dessa's year, Doomtree is setting up Sims to have a monster 2011.  The new album is coming out soon, and a few singles have been released already.  I like Sims.  His last full-length was really strong.  As with all Doomtree artists, though, I think he's at his best when he's actually rapping about something, as opposed to just stringing together puns and references.  "Osmosis," off his last album, was really good.  The new single, "Burn It Down," (video above) is a killer song on paper (hot beat, hot rhymes), but it does nothing for me... mostly because it fits the Doomtree formula so perfectly that it doesn't seem fresh.  Still anticipating the album, though.

Audio Perm: A crazy talented producer trio and a full fledged crew, these guys have been building steam all year and should be doing some big things in 2011. The extended crew also includes Yakub, who just produced a Ghostface (!) song, Fresh Squeeze (one of my favorite local groups) and a whole bunch of young and talented hip hop artists.  Can they transcend the burgeoning weeknight party scene and release some memorable music?  I think so, but we'll see.

Mally: I think Mally will blow up this year, at least in a local sense.  He's already riding a wave of good press for his monthly free downloads (a collaboration with producer the Sundance Kid) and he's a good rapper and hard worker.  He also has man-about-the-internet Jon Jon Scott on his side, which is always helpful.  I think the challenge for Mally (as it is for any of us) will be separating himself from every other "talented, hard-working" MC both locally and beyond.

The Usual Suspects: This group is, and has been, super underrated.  I think IBE is one of the best MCs in the Twin Cities, and the whole crew is smart, political and fun.  I'm not sure that this is their year to break out or anything like that (there is a mixtape on the horizon, but that's all I know about); I'm moreso including them here because I HOPE it is.  This is a good example of a group that might not be super fashionable to write about (you're not going to see them on the cover of Vita.MN anytime soon); but they make some of the best punch-you-in-the-face rap music in the Twin Cities.

And here are a few acts I know personally.  So maybe I'm lying.  But I think they'll have big years too:

Junkyard Empire: This is a radically political hip hop band that's been around for a little while, but 2011 should be a big year for them.  New album, an updated live show and just more experience under their belts.  The last time I saw them live they absolutely shut it down.

Heidi Barton Stink: The new album is very cool, featuring production from See More Perspective, and Heidi's live show has also progressed to the point where it's capable of stealing the show from the people she opens for.



The Tribe & Big Cats!: With an album coming out this month that features Ab Rude, Planet Asia, Phil da Agony, Toki Wright and more, the Tribe are poised to have a very big year.  They also have a great live show, and have done a lot of networking over the past year.  The pieces are in place to have a big album release, and hopefully a ripple effect into the rest of the year.

And as always, there are a million more.  The hip hop scene here is huge and talented.  I could talk about M.anifest and Culture Cry Wolf and Ill 3 and Kristoff and Maria and No Bird Sing and Des and Mnemosyne and a lot of people who are probably also going to have big years.  These were just a few that sprang to mind right away.  Google them.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Upcoming Shows

photo by Jon Behm

A few fun shows coming up.  Wanted to post this mostly just so the last post (which is ridiculous) isn't on top.

1. I've been the arts coordinator of the Canvas, a teen arts center, for a year now, booking workshops, doing school visits to promote our programs, facilitating events and much more.  We're also a burgeoning concert space, and one of our February programs is a concert series featuring artist-in-residence Kristoff Krane.  More details on that soon, but one confirmed detail is that I'll be playing the first date: Thursday, February 3.  Free and all-ages.  6pm.

2.  The Tribe & Big Cats! are about to release their debut album, Forward Thinkers Movers Shakers; the album features Abstract Rude, Toki Wright, Phil da Agony, Planet Asia and more.  I'll be doing some traveling here and there during the Spring with them.  We have confirmed dates at UW-Madison, La Crosse and UW-Stout, and more being set up.  See the column on the right.

3. "The Best Love is Free" is a compilation put together by Botzy from Culture Cry Wolf.  Me and Claire are on it this year, and there will also be a full Guante & Big Cats! set at the release party.  The show is at the Fineline on Saturday, February 12 and will also feature Kristoff Krane, Soulcrate Music, Culture Cry Wolf and more.

After that, there's the re-release of "Conscious is Not Enough" (updated and re-recorded), the launch of the MN Activist project, a show at the Loft Literary Center and a billion other things.  Should be a great year.

On Hyperbole in Music Writing

REVIEW:
Guante & Big Cats!: “An Unwelcome Guest”

10/10



It’s been said by many that Guante is the perfect 21st Century Man. Indeed, as inarguably the best MC of his (or any) generation, a two-time National Poetry Slam champion, perfect physical specimen, hilarious Twitter personality, brilliant writer and masterful orator, Guante’s only real flaw is his flawlessness. An artist is supposed to create art that the common people can relate to in some way, to reveal the universal truths that connect us all. How can someone as inhumanly luminous as Guante make music that the rest of us can even comprehend, let alone relate to?

Amazingly, unexpectedly, beautifully, he’s done it. I’m still processing how it was possible, but he’s done it. This new album, “An Unwelcome Guest,” (buy it at this link or continue leading an empty life) a collaboration with super-producer Big Cats! (the exclamation point is absolutely necessary), is nothing short of an instant classic, a superlative masterpiece that ties together every thread and impulse that defines our existence in a way that is as familiar as it is revelatory, as challenging as it is compelling and as ugly as it is beautiful. This isn’t just the best hip hop album of the past decade—it’s one of the most inspiring works of art ever created by humanity.

A concept album, “An Unwelcome Guest” tells the gripping story of an unnamed narrator traveling from East to West in the wake of an unspecified (though likely zombie-related) disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Through this narrative frame, Guante weaves together a story that touches on illegal immigration, violence as a tool of social change, the mythology of superheroes, authority and rebellion and love and much more. The songs are dark without venturing into melodrama, political without being preachy or overbearing, and catchy without being saccharine pop nonsense. Every word of every bar counts.

Sometimes, a single line will allude to multiple ideas; sometimes, a single word or syllable will wrap itself around a complex philosophical concept in a way that will open your mind to the majesty of existence.  A hundred years from now, English Ph.D students will be writing papers about this album.  A thousand years from now, monks will furiously scribble its lyrics onto parchment as alien deathrays rain down destruction around them.

Big Cats!’s beats are relentless, multilayered hip hop symphonies, easy to lose yourself in, impossible to take in with just one listen. The give-and-take, call-and-response dynamic between the two members of this duo is nothing short of hypnotic—you’re absolutely enveloped in Big Cats!’s music, and Guante’s vocals are your lifeline, the only way out of the darkness… so you listen as though your life depended on it. Maybe it does.

Listening to—nay, experiencing—this album is like waking up with functional wings, like watching a million rainbow-striped, machete-waving koala bears dancing through your dreams, like God Himself has just destroyed the rest of the world so He can focus entirely on you.

What more can I say here? I’m not nearly talented enough as a writer to express the total ecstasy that is listening to “An Unwelcome Guest.” My favorite song is every song. My favorite line is every line. This will actually be my last review for this publication. I’ve handed in my resignation; this album has inspired me to actually do something real with my life. Thank you, Guante & Big Cats!. Thank you.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Twin Cities Hip Hop Awards Nominations

I'm up for three different Twin Cities Hip Hop awards this year: Best Album (for "An Unwelcome Guest"), Best Label (Tru Ruts) and Best Knowledge Spitta.  You can vote here.

I know a lot of people write off the TCHHA because of the seemingly random nominee list, the public voting system and the fact that last year's show got shut down because of a fight (I was backstage; was going to perform shortly after), and all of those things are valid.  But it's still a really cool event.  The Twin Cities hip hop scene is much bigger than most people give it credit for.  It's not just Rhymesayers and Doomtree, and it's also not just them and the second tier of underground acts like Hieruspecs, Kanser, Big Quarters, Kristoff Krane, No Bird Sing, Maria Isa, me and a couple dozen others.  The scene also includes a whole bunch of artists who represent a whole bunch of different communities and styles, communities and styles that are all but shut out of local media and segregated from the more well-known acts.

So if nothing else, it's very cool to see all these different people in the same room at the same time.  It's really the only event in town that does that, and that should be applauded.  I got asked to perform again this year, but I was already booked-- hopefully it's a big, beautiful night.

Monday, January 03, 2011

8 Invalid Arguments Regarding Pop Culture

This version was originally published at Opine Season

This is a re-worked version of an older piece; with the recent controversy over Miss Saigon at the Ordway, the continued pressure on the Washington NFL team to change its name, and the various Miley/Macklemore/Thicke fiascos, I thought it’d be a good time to update it.

Part of being passionate about art and culture is getting into arguments about art and culture. I’ve had my share, especially when it comes to the intersection of social justice and pop culture. What follows are eight rhetorical devices I’ve encountered in these arguments and why I don’t buy them.

1. “It’s just a (movie/song/book/commercial/etc.)”
Culture informs society. To dismiss pop culture as pure escapism or background noise is naïve. No, hearing Eminem say “stab you in the head/ whether you’re a fag or lez” isn’t going to instantly turn every listener into a violent homophobe, but to say that there isn’t any impact at all is just intellectually dishonest. Offensive images and words, over time, do help shape the world, especially when those images or words correspond with institutions that systematically oppress people. Even seemingly innocuous archetypes like “the sassy Black friend” or the “wise old Asian man” in movies become harmful because of the prevalence of the images and the lack of alternative images.

2. “You’re just being over-sensitive. Lighten up.”
When someone is offended, that emotional and intellectual response is real. It’s unbelievably arrogant to simply write that off. Maybe the person really is misinterpreting something, but the least you can do is take a second to try to understand where they’re coming from and consider the specific points they’re making. If someone thinks that the movie “Avatar” co-opts and distorts indigenous struggles, and you disagree, talk about why you disagree; don’t just dismiss them as whiny babies. Better yet, suppress the impulse to immediately debate them and just listen.

It’s also worth noting that finding something offensive isn’t always about “hurt feelings.” It’s often also about recognizing the connections between offensive words or images and dangerous, oppressive systems and institutions. The “this isn’t a big deal” attitude reveals a fundamental naïveté about how culture informs society; see point #1.

3. “I’m also (Asian/lesbian/blind/etc.) and I wasn’t offended by that” or “I have a friend who is (Asian/lesbian/blind/etc.) and they weren’t offended by that.”
You and/or your friend are not the absolute authority on all things (Asian/lesbian/blind/etc.). If other people are offended, that reaction is real; see point #2. Asian-American actors from “Miss Saigon” have defended the play; their support, however, doesn’t make other people’s critiques invalid.

4. “At least it’s better than everything else out there.”
Eating light bulbs is better for you than drinking bleach; that doesn’t mean eating light bulbs is a good thing. The current state of pop culture is pretty awful when it comes to representation and social justice. Being “a little bit better” isn’t good enough to exempt anyone from criticism. It’s great that Joss Whedon writes strong female characters; we can still criticize him, however, for his treatment of characters of color.

5. “Sure it was offensive, but they didn’t mean to do it. They weren’t trying to be (racist/sexist/homophobic/etc). They just didn’t know any better.”
Impact trumps intent; if you accidentally offend someone, you might not be a bad person, but it does not magically absolve you of responsibility. Saying something stupid out of ignorance is only marginally better than saying something stupid out of malice, and the effect on people is exactly the same. Katy Perry may not have anything against the LGBTQ community, but the song “Ur So Gay” still reinforces hurtful stereotypes.

6. “They’re not saying that ALL (female/gay/Black/etc.) people are like that, just these specific ones.”
This is also known as the “but some women ARE bitches” argument. An artist cannot control how people ingest his or her art. Interpretations differ. Characters and images in pop culture are always symbols for larger communities, whether or not the creator of that character meant it to be that way. Sure, Long Duk Dong from “16 Candles” is just one specific character. But in a movie (and corresponding cultural landscape) that has no other Asian characters, he becomes a vessel for Asian-ness and Otherness, both of which are characterized negatively. See point #5.

7. Anything involving the phrase “politically correct.”
As much as people try to characterize those who are offended as oversensitive whiners, phrases like “PC police” and “I don’t believe in political correctness” absolutely reek of “boo hoo I actually have to think about what I’m saying and consider other people’s feelings; I’m so oppressed!” Political correctness doesn’t mean that you can’t be honest. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be offensive, if that offensive language is making a larger, important point. It just means “don’t be a jackass.” The “PC police” defense is a blanket rhetorical device that allows thoughtless people to dodge criticism. If you are going to say/do something offensive, it should serve a greater purpose, and you should take whatever criticism you have coming openly and honestly.

8. Why would you expect something better? They’re just trying to make money and most people don’t care about this stuff.
Of course this is true. But to simply internalize it is defeatism. We can fight back, make noise, start conversations, engage in boycotts, write articles, create better art, and make the connections between pop culture and society that need to be made.

Further Reading:

“Thanks for the Severed Head; You’ve Proved My Point” (at Native Appropriations)

“Why Tonto Matters” (also at Native Appropriations; you should probably just bookmark that site)

“What’s the Big Deal with Pop Culture, and Why Do You Keep Talking About It?” (at Feminists with Disabilities for a Way Forward)