Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Song Spotlight: "You Say 'Millionaire' Like It's A Good Thing" (Big Cats Remix) + Some Great Links on Wealth and Inequality

“Right now, I feel a need for all of us to breathe fire.” --Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

With more and more discourse lately (online and in real life) about how corrupt and out-of-touch the super-rich are, I wanted to share a few thoughts and links related to this song. "You Say 'Millionaire' Like It's A Good Thing" has been around for a few years-- the original version of the song is available here, and the lyrics are included in my book. This remix, courtesy of Big Cats, is the song's Final Form-- a lean, focused burst of venom directed at the rich.

As a writer and as an activist, I'm really interested in the power of language to reframe issues. It's important to write songs and poems that describe poverty, that tell our stories, and that call us to action toward economic justice; this song, however, was an attempt to do something a little more specific: to reframe the accumulation of wealth as something that is not just "an unfortunate side effect of the system," but rather as something that is *morally* reprehensible.

There are caveats; I'm reminded of Jay-Z's "If you grew up with holes in your zapatos/ you'd celebrate the minute you was having dough." The argument here isn't that all rich people are "bad" on an individual level (although many absolutely are!); it's that a system that makes it possible for the distribution of wealth to be so extremely, so obscenely skewed is flat-out wrong. It is directly responsible for the death and suffering of too many people.

And sure, we can have conversations about how wealth is relative, how even working class people in the US "have it better" than x, y, or z other group... but that's part of the point of the song too-- there's a point where that relativity fails. Maybe it's not at a million dollars exactly; but somewhere on the wealth spectrum, earning becomes hoarding. Need becomes greed. Here are some articles that go more in-depth; I hope they can be useful, especially as so many of us are watching the 2020 candidates navigate this issue:

Christopher Ingraham: "Wealth concentration returning to ‘levels last seen during the Roaring Twenties,’ according to new research" (Washington Post): "American wealth is highly unevenly distributed, much more so than income. According to Zucman’s latest calculations, today the top 0.1 percent of the population has captured nearly 20 percent of the nation’s wealth, giving them a greater slice of the American pie than the bottom 80 percent of the population combined."

Farhad Manjoo: "Abolish Billionaires" (NYT): "But the adulation we heap upon billionaires obscures the plain moral quandary at the center of their wealth: Why should anyone have a billion dollars, why should anyone be proud to brandish their billions, when there is so much suffering in the world?"

Sophie Weiner: "AOC: A Society With Billionaires Cannot Be Moral" (Splinter): "'The question of marginal tax rates is a policy question but it’s also a moral question,' Ocasio-Cortez said. 'What kind of society do we want to live in? Are we comfortable with a society where someone can have a personal helipad while this city is experiencing the highest levels of poverty and homelessness since the Great Depression?'"

A.Q. Smith: "It's Basically Just Immoral To Be Rich" (Current Affairs): "It is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear."

Charles Mathewes and Evan Sandsmark: "Being rich wrecks your soul. We used to know that." (Washington Post): "As stratospheric salaries became increasingly common, and as the stigma of wildly disproportionate pay faded, the moral hazards of wealth were largely forgotten. But it’s time to put the apologists for plutocracy back on the defensive, where they belong — not least for their own sake. After all, the Buddha, Aristotle, Jesus, the Koran, Jimmy Stewart, Pope Francis and now even science all agree: If you are wealthy and are reading this, give away your money as fast as you can."

Emmie Martin: "Here’s how much money you need to be happy, according to a new analysis by wealth experts" (CNBC): "'The lower a person's annual income falls below that benchmark, the unhappier he or she feels. But no matter how much more than $75,000 people make, they don't report any greater degree of happiness,' Time reported in 2010, citing a study from Princeton University conducted by economist Angus Deaton and psychologist Daniel Kahneman."

Jesus, in the Bible: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Friday, February 08, 2019

Profiled in City Pages' 2019 "People" Issue

This interview/profile by Erik Thompson (featuring this photo from Colin Michael Simmons) is a good snapshot of what I'm up to these days.

One additional shout out: if you're interested in all that stuff that happens at the intersection of poetry, social justice, youth voice, and movement-building, I hope this is on your radar: The 2019 Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam series is happening right now, and heads into semifinals and finals next month.

Semifinals: March 9 at Metro State and March 16 at the Guthrie. Finals: March 30 at SteppingStone Theatre. All bouts start at 7pm, and they're some of the most exciting, emotionally charged, artistically dynamic events of the year. More info will be available via TruArtSpeaks.

As far as my own work goes, you can still catch my latest album here, my book here, and videos of my poems here. Thanks for tuning in.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019


(or “what happens when you understand conflict, but don’t understand power”)

“I condemned the destruction of Alderaan. Then I saw the longer video in which Princess Leia says some pretty mean stuff to Grand Moff Tarkin. In this outrage culture, it’s just so easy to ignore the larger context, and I apologize.”

“When we focus so much on the ‘wolfman’ terrorizing our village and eating our children, it implies that all men are wolves. We need to do a better job celebrating the men who aren’t werewolves, not just condemning the ones who are.”

“Dolores Umbridge tortured students. That’s no excuse for disrespect.”

“I don’t enjoy sending our children off to die in the hunger games. I think they’re ugly, violent spectacles. I just wonder, though, in our rush to make everything more ‘politically-correct,’ whether banning them would amount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

“I am part of the resistance inside Cthulhu’s transdimensional cabal of existence-eaters.”

“While it’s certainly true that the phrase ‘there is no war in Ba Sing Se’ is propaganda meant to brainwash the populace into submission, one has to admit: it is peaceful here. Residents of Ba Sing Se aren’t constantly embroiled in debates about cultural appropriation or trigger warnings; it’s a place where things just work. The politics are moderate. The economy is roaring (at least for now). The strangers are helpful.”

“The complete inability to see nuance, to put yourself in your rival’s shoes, to compromise: indeed, the people fighting the Nazgûl are the real Nazgûl.”

“I don't agree with Thanos murdering half the universe. But does that merit harassing him in the street, calling him names, having people trying to steal his glove? Imagine this happening to someone you agree with and see how you feel.”

“Who among us hasn’t, as an unruly youth, wiped out a village of sand people, or killed a few younglings while in the throes of teenage angst? Let boys be boys.”

“Count Dracula may be a blood-drinking murderer, but when these liberal college students pressure their universities to not invite him to campus for paid speaking engagements, they’re committing a different sort of murder-- the murder of our first amendment rights.”

(if this post doesn't make a lot of sense, here. are. three. pieces with some background)

Thursday, January 17, 2019

How Much Profit is in Your Pain? On Masculinity and Outrage

a still image from the Gillette commercial of a line of men standing in front of BBQs

I finally watched the Gillette ad everyone is talking about. What's immediately striking to me is how basic it is-- and I don't mean that in a bad way. It's just a simple, straightforward affirmation that men can do better. Bullying is bad. Harassment is bad. Holding each other accountable is good. Cool.

As a post-#MeToo battlecry, it isn't exactly radical. But note how a certain subgroup of men respond:

"It's saying that all men are toxic and that's not fair!"

"It's PC SJW propaganda trying to emasculate men; we can't even be men anymore!"

"The feminist movement has gone TOO FAR and we need to organize a boycott!"

To reiterate: this was an ad for razors. It showed scenes like a dad breaking up a fight between two little boys, and a guy stopping his friend from shouting at a woman on the street. It featured Terry Crews saying "men need to hold other men accountable." Again, this isn't exactly burn-the-patriarchy-to-the-ground territory.

I'm also not convinced that the outrage directed at the ad is really representative of the population. Angry men are always loud on the internet, and counting YouTube likes and dislikes isn't exactly scientific. Whatever the specific numbers though, we know that these responses are out there in some capacity. We know that whenever there's a battle in the culture war (whether real or rumored), a certain subgroup of men are going to come out of the woodwork and form ranks. And yeah, their attitude is pretty emblematic of what people talk about when they talk about "toxic masculinity."

I don't love that term; not because it isn't accurate (it's super accurate), but because it's evolved into a distraction. We don't all have to constantly be in educator/outreach mode, but that is a mode that I often find myself in. When I work with boys and young men, we always talk about toxic masculinity, but we rarely use that specific phrase. Instead, we ask questions:

"Why do so many of us feel attacked when specific elements of masculinity get critiqued? Is it because we don't identify with those elements (#NotAllMen)... or because we do and would rather not think about it?"

"Why are so many of us so defensive in the first place? Why do we feel like we have to "win" the conversation rather than just listen and reflect?"

"Who benefits from this outrage? Who benefits from the bigger picture, this constant pressure on men to be tough, strong, in control, dominant, and aggressive? Is it us, or someone else?"

There are a million things we could talk about with regards to these questions, the Gillette ad, and masculinity (as a lot of my work explores)-- but for this piece, I want to focus on that last question. Because we can and should talk about what toxic masculinity is, the harm it can cause, and how we can move beyond it. But we don't always get a chance to explore why that's become the default script for men, the role to which we're supposed to aspire.

On the last Guante & Big Cats album, I wrote a song called "Dog People." The song looks at some of the qualities we project onto dogs (loyalty, unconditional love, obedience, etc.) and then explores how those qualities aren't always good things when applied to humans. That's framed by a larger question about anger: where does the anger that so many men feel come from? At whom do we aim it? Who benefits from it? The key verse:

I’ve seen anger like a loaded shotgun, a weapon 
Just pointed in the wrong direction 
Yeah we’re dog people: Chasing our own tails 
Look at who we blame when we fail: 
Scapegoats and bogeymen, always on the outside lookin’ in 
And mad about the taste of the soup that we’ve been cookin’ in 
but never mad at the cook, 
That man is a crook, who’s rich off the labor and the land that he took 
‘Cause look feminists didn’t close the factory 
that family on foodstamps didn’t eat your lunch 
Immigrants never offshored opportunity 
The pc police never shot anyone (so who’s your real enemy?) 
...and still we howl at that moon 
Whimper in a kennel hopin’ our master is back soon 
With that choke chain, shock collar love ‘til we break 
‘Til he’s trained us to hate everything that he hates, It’s a scam

That last line was important for me to include, because it points to something I've observed, doing this kind of critical masculinity work over the past decade: so much of male identity (especially white male identity) revolves around a profound fear of being taken advantage of. You see this in common political tropes: the mythical welfare queen, the undocumented immigrant, the affirmative action hire-- speechwriters and political commentators know that these tropes are powerful because they tap into that fear. "Those people think they can game the system, steal my hard-earned tax dollars, and get something I never got? That's not fair!"

The great irony, of course, is that men ARE being taken advantage of-- just not by feminists, immigrants, or any other culture war bogeyman.

We're scammed by advertisers that play off of our insecurities in order to sell us trucks, cologne, or beer. We're scammed by corporations that underpay us for our labor, or lay us off, while shareholders and CEOs accumulate grotesque amounts of wealth. We're scammed by politicians who promise that if we vote for them, they'll get rid of all the leeches and make our country great again, while rigging the tax system to benefit those already at the top. We're scammed by propagandists who tell us exactly what we want to hear, making growth/learning impossible. We're scammed by YouTubers and social media snake-oil salesman making controversial statements and then monetizing our clicks. We're scammed by a culture that says "if you work hard, you too can be a millionaire," while systematically eliminating opportunities and resources that can lead to financial security.

These are the people who benefit from men's outrage: the conmen, the corrupt, the rich. As long as men keep directing our anger at scapegoats like political correctness, feminism, or whatever SJWs-run-amok-of-the-day pops up on social media, we're not seeing the real villains of this story-- and those villains are very much aware of that fact.

"Dog People" ends, again, not with bold proclamations, but with questions:

How much profit is in your pain?
Who really benefits from your hate?

I don't think a significant amount of the men who are mad at the Gillette commercial read my blog. I'm more interested in these questions as tools for those of us who do education work. We know that values-based appeals are generally more effective than statistics or big "here's my powerpoint on toxic masculinity" presentations. Fairness, justice, a fear of being taken advantage of-- all of these are values that make that "certain subgroup of men" so resistant to critical thinking about toxic/violent/hegemonic masculinity. These same values, though, can be pivot points for growth.

How can we facilitate a shift? I don't think there's any one strategy, but I'm thinking about how outrage about a scholarship that is only open to women students can become outrage about student loan debt and the increasing inaccessibility of higher ed in general. Outrage about gendered conscription laws can be become outrage about militarism and imperialism. Outrage about a commercial addressing toxic masculinity can become outrage about a culture that has taught us that rage is the only emotion we're allowed to feel.

Of course, that reframing won't always work. Some men are just misogynists, or just want to argue for their "team" on the internet. Others, sometimes because of other identities they hold, already understand this power dynamic stuff and are ready to move into more radical places. But in my experience, the much larger group is made up of those in the middle, those men who maybe just haven't had this conversation yet, and are therefore open to toxic ideas about gender and dominance... but also open to other possibilities. We can't expect any corporation to do that work via cools ads, but I think the fact that this ad exists points to a culture that really is shifting in a positive direction. It's on us now-- especially those of us who are men-- to keep pushing.

A few other things I've written that pull together tools for anyone looking to cultivate more dialogue about these issues:

Thursday, December 27, 2018

2018 Wrap-Up Post: Songs, Poems, Videos, and Writing You May Have Missed

Once again, not a great year, in terms of the world. But I was able to be part of some cool stuff, and am endlessly grateful for everyone who helped make that possible. Here's a quick recap (and you can find my other end-of-year recaps here) of some of the stuff of mine that people may have missed:

1. Button Poetry Re-Released My Book
Thanks again to everyone who has picked this up, read it, used it in classes, etc. Still blown away by the response. You can still get it here, and an audio version is on the way!

2. Guante & Big Cats: War Balloons
Proud of this album. Ever-grateful to Big Cats, Lydia Liza, and Tony the Scribe for helping to make it happen. If you missed it, I think it's some of my best work. You can listen to the whole thing here, and consider buying it if you like it:

Oh and for people new to our music (since this is the first project we've released in years), here's a retrospective mix featuring some of our best older songs too. You can also order a t-shirt featuring some cool designs juxtaposed with my lyrics.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Poem of the Month: "Alien Suite" by Safia Elhillo (Plus a #BeHeard19 Announcement!)

"Where I'm from is where I'm from and not where I was put."

I'm highlighting some older poems that are personal favorites of mine (although this particular entry was a suggestion from poet Fatima Camara-- thanks!); it's a way to shout out some good work, and also to analyze some tools and tactics that poets use that might be useful to aspiring writers. Find the full list here.

We could talk about how this poem is actually a series of poems, performed back-to-back without breaks. But whether we hear this as a series, or as one poem that features multiple movements, I think the more important thing is the overall effect.

As a poet, you can show up and just read your ten best poems, sure; or you can be intentional with how you put those poems into conversation with one another. You can structure how you want your 15 minutes (or 5, or 30, or whatever) to move, to flow, to breathe. You can juxtapose ideas and techniques so that the set as a whole becomes even more powerful than the sum of its parts. This process is an integral part of writing a book, but can definitely apply to live performance too.

It's maybe worth pausing for a second to ask whether hearing an entire set, with none of the witty banter or joking between the poems that are so common in spoken word spaces, is jarring. A followup could be whether that "jarring" is constructive or distracting. I think a lot of us would probably agree that with this poem, it's constructive-- it gives the poem(s) a tension and energy that undergirds the emotions and ideas being grappled with.

In general, and at the risk of saying something super obvious, I think banter-between-poems is good when it's good and bad when it's bad. Sometimes, pausing between poems to talk can frame or contextualize poems in a powerful way. Sometimes it can cultivate intimacy with the audience. Sometimes it can give the audience a moment to breathe, and give a set a kind of rhythm that draws focus to the poems. Other times, of course, it can be super annoying.

I think this video shows the power of letting the poetry speak for itself, of breaking outside the mold of what a spoken word set is supposed to look/sound like, and of subverting the audience's expectations. There are a million other things to explore regarding the fantastic line-by-line writing on display here, not to mention the actual substance/ideas the poem(s) explores--  but I'll leave it there for now. Feel free to add more thoughts in the comments.

  • Find more from Safia Elhillo (including booking info, social media links, and more) here.
  • My full list of poem commentary/essays here.

AN ADDITIONAL NOTE: Sign Up For #BeHeard19 Here:
That's the last poem-of-the-month for 2018. In January, the 2019 Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series kicks off. If you're a MN poet between 13 and 19, and want a space to share your work and build community with other youth poets, check it out. You can sign up here if you want to slam.

And whether or not you slam, or are eligible to slam, these are always really fantastic shows. Mark your calendars to check out a bout or two (or all of them!) and support young people speaking for themselves.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

New Merch Available

Just set up a new web store with some merch featuring lyrics from me + art by some very cool artists.  Each design comes in multiple colors/styles, and you can check out the artists and more of their work in the info sections.

The "matches" quote is from the Sifu Hotman (me, Dem Atlas, and Rube) album, and the other two quotes are from the Guante & Big Cats album "War Balloons." Aside from shirts, there are also mugs and tote bags for when you need to tote something.