Monday, December 19, 2011

Guante & Big Cats!: WINTER IS COMING (free download and album annoucement)

Winter Is Coming (prod. Big Cats!) by Guante

As a duo, we haven't released any new material since last year's "Don't Be Nice" mixtape, although Big Cats! has been making tons of noise with The Tribe & Big Cats!, and I've been doing a bunch of solo stuff.  This song is a free download, and it's also the official announcement for our next album:

"YOU BETTER WEAPONIZE" will be out in 2012.  This song isn't on the album.  But the songs that are on the album are some of our best work ever.  More details to come.  Follow us on FB.

Plus a quick review:  Back in 2010, we released "An Unwelcome Guest," a concept album that fused radical politics with a love story with a zombie story.  It featured guest spots from Haley Bonar, Joe Horton of No Bird Sing, Prolyphic, Big Quarters and Chastity Brown.  Tru Ruts put it out and Strange Famous (Sage Francis' label) helped us out with presale packages.  If you still haven't heard it, give it a listen.  Two years out, I can see a few things that I would have done differently, but it's still an ambitious, musically-cohesive, lyrically-challenging project and we're both proud of it.  Listen to the whole album (and buy it if you like it) at this link.

Finally, here's a link to us performing live on 89.3 The Current's Local Show:

As always, any sharing (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Blogs, word-of-mouth) is definitely appreciated.

Monday, December 12, 2011

2011 Year in Review

So this is the fourth one of these that I've done (2008, 2009, 2010), and I'll let you in on a secret: this is for my own mental health.  As any independent artist (or activist) knows, this kind of work is stressful, and I need to remind myself that what I'm doing has an impact and that no one does what I do.  And I'm proud of that and make no apologies for being proud.  So here's what I did this year:

A Loud Heart -- The Illusion of Movement from Unique Techniques on Vimeo.
1. Released the acoustic hip hop collaboration A LOUD HEART with Claire Taubenhaus. We’re still in the middle of the promo push for this, but the album seems to have really struck a chord with people.  The acoustic style isn’t for everyone, obviously (and I have a couple of not-so-great reviews to prove that), but I know that this is some of my deepest, most challenging writing ever (especially on Moving Train and Revolver), and Claire knocks it out of the park too. Listen here for free, and buy it if you like it.  And a City Pages write-up here.

2. Released a re-mastered re-imagining of my mixtape CONSCIOUS IS NOT ENOUGH, an all-political collection of songs about the importance of organizing and the power of community. There are a few gems on there—“Your Boyfriend’s a Republican,” “Ink” and more.  Download it for FREE here.

3. I was asked to write and perform a new piece for the Dawn of a Dream gala, a fundraiser for the Children’s Cancer Research Fund. I went to the Amplatz Children’s Hospital and met with doctors, patients and families, doing more research for a poem than I’ve ever done, and ended up with a piece that made me more nervous than I’ve ever been.  But I got a standing ovation from a crowd of 800 people dressed in suits and evening gowns, so it worked out. And we raised a million dollars in one night.  And yes, I'm wearing a suit that matches the backdrop and talking into a Janet Jackson-style headset mic.

4. I was asked to speak/perform at Occupy MN multiple times, and it was inspiring to take part in what we may end up looking back on as the most important social movement of our generation. My piece here definitely wasn’t a good capital-P POEM, but it said some stuff that I think needed to be said. I’m most excited about what the Twin Cities Occupy movement is becoming—a movement to resist foreclosures and help out our neighbors when the banks come around. Some amazing things are happening now and will continue to happen in 2012.  Bonus video: me performing the Guante & Big Cats! song "The Hero" live at Occupy MN.

5. In March, I officially launched the MN Activist Project, a database of progressive activist organizations (plus tips and resources for activists) in the Twin Cities and beyond. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s a great start.  We had a launch party at Intermedia Arts that featured some truly surprising, inspiring work from local artists. The video above is me talking about the project at Fifth Element in MPLS with Kevin Beacham.

6. We continued the Hip Hop Against Homophobia concert series with four performances—one at the U of MN Whole, one at the Canvas teen arts center, and two at Patrick’s Cabaret. Each one brought diverse crowds together and showcased some top-notch talents. As we try to evolve from a concert series into a larger media movement, I’m hoping that more artists will get involved—especially with the ridiculous marriage amendment on the ballot this year. As people who travel around the state talking to big groups of people, artists are in a good position to actually help lead the charge against the amendment.

7. I served for my second year as arts coordinator of the Canvas, a St. Paul teen arts center.  I actually just left that position last month, and I'm incredibly thankful that I was able to serve and meet so many great people.  Just this past year, I visited almost every St. Paul high school, hosted open mics, ran the sound board for teen concerts, facilitated community organizing workshops, performed a bunch of times, facilitated the teen writers' circle, worked on programming and promotion and what seemed like a billion other things.  And I'll still be over there every Monday at 4:30 for the writing circle.

8. Tons of workshops and lectures: I gave the keynote address at the Tomorrow’s Leaders Today conference in Duluth, a public lecture on the relationship between art and social movements at Northland College, talked for an hour about that same subject on Wisconsin Public Radio, hosted the Poetry Out Loud State Finals competition at the Fitzgerald, gave a speech at Central High School’s National Honors Society induction ceremony, and facilitated workshops at the APIA Spoken-Word Summit, the Loft’s Teen Writers’ Summit, the Hmong Women Write Now! Conference and more I'm probably forgetting now.

9. Through COMPAS and on my own, I engaged in writing/performance residencies or workshops at Tri-County Schools up in Karlstad, Edison High, Anne Sullivan school, Forest Lake ALC, Roseville Middle School, the School for Environmental Studies, the Rivertown Commons community center, Great River School, Onalaska High way over in WI and more, working with hundreds of students and helping to facilitate a whole lot of expression and growth.

10. Played (and often organized) some wild shows: the AFL-CIO pavilion at the MN State Fair, Death Poetry Jam at Intermedia Arts, EQ at the Loft with Idris Goodwin, the Fineline with B.Dolan, the Cub Foods parking lot for the CTUL protests, the UW-Madison Terrace with Kristoff Krane and Not Enough Mics, a couple of shows at the Entry with Toki Wright, Junkyard Empire and Prayers for Atheists, a whole bunch of different college gigs and out-of-town shows... and I played at a Bowling Alley with Black Blondie, which might be the weirdest I've ever felt on stage.

11. Although I kind of took the year off from slam, I've been writing and performing spoken-word more than ever (and hosting a LOT).  I even got to be on MN Original to talk about spoken-word and slam poetry.  A few newer videos:

MN Original Interview:

Confessions of a White Rapper:

The Fist that Lives in Your Neck (Cartpushers):


A Prayer for Indie Rappers:

12. I did less freelancing this year (though I did get an op-ed about youth arts programs in the Pioneer Press and a book review in Rain Taxi), instead focusing on publishing stuff here.  I also have the best Twitter feed in the TC rap scene, haha.  A few of the higher-traffic posts, not counting the Occupy stuff and music/poetry stuff listed above:
That's it, I guess.  As a poet, rapper, essayist, activist and educator, it's been the busiest year ever for me, and also the most rewarding.  I'm not on the cover of the City Pages or going on tour with Atmosphere or whatever, but I know that what I'm doing is both high quality on the arts side and makes a real, concrete impact on the community side-- and that's all I care about.  I also knew when I moved here four years ago that it would take me about five years to get to where I want to be.  2012 has always been marked on my mental calendar, and I have some big things planned.

More than anything, I just want to give endless thanks to those who have supported me this year.  I can't tell you how much your retweets and Facebook wall posts and link-forwarding and word-of-mouth support and just face-to-face encouragement mean to me-- that kind of little stuff really makes a difference. So thanks again.

...and there's still one more very big announcement to make before 2011 is over.  Check back soon.

B.Dolan + Toki Wright + Jasiri X: "Film the Police"

Best song I've heard all year.  Three of my favorite MCs, talking about an important, relevant topic.  And spitting their asses off.  STOP SLEEPING.

Google them all, like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Occupy MN's Next Step: "Occupy Our Homes"

Watch this video. It's pretty powerful. More info at this ABC News link.

People keep asking about what's next, or what the protesters' main goal is. And the power of the Occupy movement is that each community can decide for itself, based on the specific needs of that community, what they want these protests to become.  Here in the Twin Cities, this looks like the next big thing.

And I'm very excited about it.  This kind of organizing not only makes an enormous symbolic statement about the power that everyday people have to resist the powers-that-be, it actually helps real people-- our neighbors-- in a concrete, practical way.  That combination is powerful.  If the MN movement can become less about defending the encampment and more about going out into the community and helping people defend their homes (of course, under their leadership and only with their consent), big things can happen.

Best of all, there will be a ton of opportunities coming up for people to get involved.  I'm going to a meeting in a couple of hours where they're going to announce the structure of the organization and talk about how people can join this movement and pitch in.  I will post details when I have them (here are my Twitter and Facebook).

Another useful link: the website for MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, another organization working on alternatives to foreclosure.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Boots Riley: "we can't be dedicated to a tactic; we have to be dedicated to winning"

First of all, Boots Riley of the Coup might be the most underrated MC in the world. If you've never heard the Coup before, I'd advise you to get familiar. But Boots is also a long-time community activist from Oakland, one who always has a brilliant way of mixing political philosophy with on-the-ground experience and realism.

Below is a series of Tweets from Boots regarding the Black Bloc tactics used during Oakland's general strike.  I caught some of these tweets as they were happening, but Dan DiMaggio forwarded me a full transcript that I think is (despite being written in Twitter-speak) extremely insightful.

The only thing I'd add here is to think about these ideas not just in the context of the Black Bloc (which is a very specific group/action that has been debated for years), but relating to all tactical choices.  It's not just smashing windows that can be counter-productive; there's a whole array of tactics, rhetoric and iconography that might not be doing what we want them to do.  The question that I keep coming back to is "how do we build a MASS movement?"  Not "how do we remain ideologically pure," or "how do we win the debate," but "how do we mobilize and radicalize as many people as possible?"  Some great food for thought here:


An extended series of Tweets from @BootsRiley from Friday, 11/24:

Not that we need that, but some dedicated non-violent folks in the movement should know that u have2work with others to make change.

Folks dedicated to blac bloc tactics shuld understand working w/others as well. We can't be dedicated2a tactic. We must b dedicated2winning.

I believe that breaking windows is not "wrong"- it just doesn't work. For a number of reasons. That is a tactic that puts the mask wearers

in a "vanguard" position. It says "We are the revolutionaries- everyone else needs to wake up!" This either turns ppl off cuz their not at

that point yet, or it causes people to simply cheer from the sidelines. It's problematic in a mass action where the masked ones know whats

about to happen and everyone else is caught off guard and more vulnerable to the police. The other problem is one of analysis. If we are

in the middle of one of the biggest, most overtly class conscious acts of the last 65 years- one that has the unity of action of 50,000 ppl-

one that caused millions in damage through an action that teaches class analysis and builds an apparatus for future action-why would u think

breaking a window at whole foods is taking it to another level? Its not. The message it gives to most is one of futile frustration. It makes

many feel that they can't win, that all we can do is break windows. We are making a movement that can stop the wheels of industry. That's

much more powerful than breaking some windows. Those tactics are ones that could b of use when masses of ppl aren't taking action. But w/an

action in which 50,000 people are making a huge step and having a general strike, the message should just be "We are all awake."

But, I think there is an ideological trend that i have encountered that leads to this- one that thinks that the ppl can't win.

When I critiqued someone around a similar action a few years ago, saying it didn't pull ppl in, & u can't win w that tactic. they resonded:

responded: "You can never win, you can only choose how to lose." Versions of this idea are at the heart of some of this, I believe.

I believe, now even more than a few months ago, that we can win. This is a new era. People are ready. We can win.

The other thing that I left out is that when a group of masked white kids break windows in a city that's many ppl of color, it feels like

the white kids are claiming ownership, not saying that this city is all of ours. It makes it harder to build a viable mass movement.

I'm saying this knowing the truth, many masked blac bloc folks are NOT white. But, if everyone perceives u as white cuz u have a mask on-

then it has the same effect. We need tactics that help build that movement. That's all. Black folks in the community I come from look at

marches on Washington and breaking store windows in a similar light- that they're futile appeals to power. So people stay away.

The thing is, no one can show me a successful revolutionary organization who relied on the tactic of breaking windows as a lynchpin.

It's like saying, in war, that ur gonna use 1 tactic in every battle, even if it doesnt work.

To be clear, I'm speaking to folks as comrades. Blac Bloc is not a group, its folks deciding2use that tactic at a certain time.

But, I have to say, there is a reason why ppl suspect that as bein done by agents:

Recently- During the OscarGrant case, proven police agent, Mandingo, did similar things. There r other cases as well. The problem comes w

using those tactics in a crowd. If u wanna break windows do it separately, don't have the crowd b the buffer btwn u & police.

Now, the only tactics I'm speaking of are vandalism and why that doesn't work. There are other tactics that do work.

There are tactics I've seen, and that we used for the march to the port, in which we have a group of folks with shields that can push thru

a police line, blocking themselves from batons and bullets & creating a spearhead for the march to go thru. That's a good one.There r others

Often as seen in OO's thanksgiving video, police will charge@ one person, causing our line to break and allowing them thru.

We can use our own distractions as well2get thru their lines. This takes not being dedicated2 a certain tactic, but being dedicated2winning.

The main thing I'm saying is that every situation, every terrain, calls for different tactics.

For example, most of you wouldn't know me if I had just made an album w different versions of "The Internationale". We'r in a new situation.

For everyone quoting Gandhi: His movement wasnt the only reason India gained independence. U think the British were only fighting Gandhi?

India had been fighting for its independence for decades via MILITANT movements that still existed during Gandhi's time.

Britain was involved in a BLOODY conflict w Palestine that soaked up resources. The Hollywood version of Indian independence amazes me.

Gandhi called strikes violent cuz they physically kept scabs out. He was at odds w many others in movement.

Lastly,2supporters of blac bloc tactics: it keeps folks away that would otherwise be militant supporters otherwise. We need the numbers.

We must be guided by what's rightðical,not what's legal. Blockin the port: illegal. Did we do it? Yes. Will we do it on Dec 12? Hell yes.

To answer some tweets- Nothing I said advocates assault. I advocate using numbers2make it so police can't stop our movements.

Sidenote: I'm in Paris, doing shows. When I say I'm from Oakland, many say "Oh! Caleeforneea!", but half say "Oui! Occupy Oakland!"

Here's my old friend Josh Healey performing a poem for OccupyCal:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Some Thoughts on Big Quarters

If you read my writing regularly, you probably know that I don't dish out praise easily. I tend to be more of a critic, partly because that's my personality and partly because I think there's already too much cheerleaderism in indie hip hop, especially locally. But Big Quarters have a new album coming out, and this is one group that I think really deserves all the hype they can get.

I don't know the brothers from Big Quarters (Brandon Allday and Medium Zach) all that well, but I feel like they embody the spirit of indie rap better than just about anyone.  Here's a phenomenally talented hip hop duo from a scene overflowing with talented hip hop artists, a group that's put work into their community as much as their craft, a throwback boom-bap artist that isn't boring, a rap act that has zero interest in jumping on trends, selling out their principles or kissing ass.  Have you heard of them?  If you have, you probably already love them.  If not, here's an introduction.

I feel like Big Quarters sometimes falls victim to the idea that an artist can't be good at two things simultaneously.  We like to box people in-- you're either a producer who raps a little or a rapper who produces a little (or a slam poet who raps some, haha).  And it's true, Brandon and Zach make some of the best beats in the Twin Cities.  But I'd argue that they're also two of the best MCs in the Twin Cities.

Big Quarters' production (whether done in-house or with a collaborator like Benzilla or Mux Mool) is soulful and funky and organic and all the other adjectives that we use when we fail to describe music.  I guess beyond that, there's an unmistakable earthiness to their beats-- partly from their sample sources, but I don't think that that's all of it.  The beats sound like lava bearing down on a forest and the forest fighting back, soil churning up into walls, tree roots slithering through the dirt.  I hate to get overly poetic, but that's really what I think of when I hear this stuff.  It's traditionalist, sample-based hip hop music, but it never sounds like they're just doing the same old thing that the Beatnuts or DJ Muggs have already done-- it pays tributes to the legends without biting them.

And as MCs, Brandon and Zach are special.  They're not flashy, but they're always engaging, which isn't easy to do.  There's a confidence and poise in their deliveries that transcends the need for big punchlines and pop culture references-- it's grown-folks hip hop, but without the elitist baggage so often associated with that label.  Brandon is the more recognizable voice, with a bass-y growl somehow deeper than Crescent Moon and Joe Horton combined.  Zach is maybe a little more agile, but both display an understanding of the poetry of MCing that's rare and refreshing.  And the lyrics don't just sound cool-- Big Quarters is one of the smartest, most political (without ever venturing into platitudes and rhetoric) hip hop duos making music today.  Again, it's not punch-you-in-the-face lyricism-- it's subtle and thought-provoking and down-to-earth and utterly unique.

That combination of brilliant production work, truly smart, meaningful content, quality technical rapping and a cohesive sound/approach is simply not something that many artists can pull off.  For "real hip hop heads" and casual listeners alike, this is a group that needs to be on your radar.  I could talk more about why I like BQ, but it'd probably be better to just post some videos so you can listen for yourself.

Those are just a few, mostly from "Cost of Living," which is my favorite BQ album, even though it's a little older. "Painkillers" is probably my favorite track. What's yours?

Big Quarters' new album, "Party Like a Young Commie," will be released on December 16 at the Triple Rock in MPLS.  You can pre-order it here.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Death Poetry Jam at Intermedia Arts, 11/28/11

I've been wanting to throw this show for a while.  This is an unbelievable lineup of artists, and if you have even a passing interest in spoken-word, this is not a show to be missed.  We'll all be performing work that deals with death in some way-- some serious, some light, some heart-wrenching, some beautiful.  Hope you can make it.  Facebook event page here.

Bring Out Your Dead (prod. Big Cats!) by Guante

A Loud Heart: get the new album

Here's the new album.  Click on the image to go to the Bandcamp page and listen and/or download.  We're pretty proud of it.  Big thanks to Big Cats! for playing bass on the first two tracks and doing the mixing/recording, as well as Renee Klitzke, who played cello on the last three tracks.  We hope you like it!

And in case you missed it, here's our video.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A LOUD HEART video: "The Illusion of Movement"

A Loud Heart -- The Illusion of Movement from Unique Techniques on Vimeo.

Me and Claire stopped by the Unique Techniques studio to shoot a live video for our song "The Illusion of Movement," which is actually an acoustic remake of one of my older tracks.  At its core, this is a song about struggle, about reaching for something even if you know that you might never actually get there, about valuing the process as well as the product.  It's also a love song, which is a running theme on this project-- using love songs as entry points to talk about larger issues.  Hope you like it.

Huge thanks to artist, educator and media whiz PCP, who shot and edited the video.  You may remember that I stopped in a month or so ago and we had a great conversation for his podcast.

Anyways, don't forget about our release party, coming up 11/11/11 at Honey in MPLS.  The whole A LOUD HEART album will be available online as well, but not until after the show.  If you buy it at the show, you'll get a handcrafted package including the CD and lyrics sheet.  Details:

EDIT: Listen to the full album here!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Guante: "The Hero" (Live at Occupy MN)

This is one of my favorite songs that I've written (and I've included it on about three different mixtapes, haha).  You kind of have to listen to the whole thing to get it, though.  The beat is by Big Cats!, and fits the song perfectly. It's always such an honor to be asked to perform at events like this, and I think that some of my songs/poems really take on new meaning in that context. This is definitely one of them.

Here's a more in-depth commentary on the song and what it means to me, courtesy of Culture Bully.  And here's a free download if you want the MP3:

The Hero (prod. Big Cats!) by Guante

Monday, October 24, 2011

Yes, Your Halloween Costume is Racist

(Poster campaign against racist costumes from students at Ohio U)

Here's the thing: I know you weren't TRYING to be racist. I know that I'm not getting "what you were going for." I know YOU think your costume is just "riffing on stereotypes" or only represents "one specific character, not an entire race." But dressing up as a caricature of someone else's culture is still a terrible costume idea and you should have thought of something better.

And make no mistake, these costumes are racist. Even if you don't think they are. Even if I'm just being a big oversensitive PC baby. Even if your counterarguments to all of this are well-reasoned, you're still on the "uncreative jackass" side of this debate.

And that's what this comes down to, in the end. These costumes aren't just offensive and oppressive, they're really boring too. I mean, if you have one night to dress up like something--anything-- that you're not, and the best you could think of is "Jamaican guy" or "Mexican," that's pretty sad.

So this Halloween, forget the sombreros, feather headdresses, turbans, kimonos and (ugh) blackface makeup. Be a robot instead. Be a vampire. Bake some muffins and be the goddamn muffin man. Or just stay home and eat candy. Isn't that what Halloween is all about anyway?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

What the Occupy Movement Has Already Accomplished, and What's Next

That's a video from the incomparable Jay Smooth, one of the smartest voices of the hip hop generation.  If you don't know him, watch ALL of his videos.  He has a talent for breaking things down really well.

One thing he mentions in this video is how OWS has already been successful in framing the conversation, in making it perfectly clear "who the ringers are and who the muscle is."  Of course, a lot of people already knew that, but this movement has made it the #1 issue of this moment-- not just "the economy is bad," but "the economy is bad because of unregulated corporate influence in politics, a broken banking system, the fact that the rich are making fortunes off of our labor while we make do with less and less, and maybe even capitalism itself."  That's a significant difference.

And while I don't want to overestimate how much this movement is actually accomplishing, I also think we shouldn't underestimate how important that re-framing of the debate really is.  If everyone went home tomorrow, they'd have already accomplished something enormous, a real cultural shift in how people think about class.  That will play out in the 2012 elections, but it will hopefully also have an enormous ripple effect through our world beyond electoral politics, beyond Democrats vs. Republicans, beyond the old ways of thinking.

The movement has also opened up spaces-- people getting together, some for weeks now, to just build.  Conversations happen, debates flare up, we all grow as activists and as people.  One of the primary functions of large-scale protests is to radicalize new organizers, and a long-term protest like this one does that really well.  Being out there, you learn what tactics are effective and what aren't, you learn about how to deal with the police, you learn about how to best fit your talents and interests into the larger movement.  That kind of "professional development" stuff is invaluable.

It's also been a kick to the ass of progressive organizers of all stripes.  We haven't had something big to easily coalesce around for a while.  But one point I keep trying to make is that whether you work on environmental issues, anti-racist organizing, public education, LGBTQ activism, homeless advocacy or whatever, we all need to be working together-- we need to make the connections between issues explicit.  The Occupy movement, even when it isn't doing this on purpose, is a "big tent movement" with a lot of space for flexibility and creativity, and it's created a space for everyone to step their game up-- even those activists who want nothing to do with Occupy and organize separately.  At least that's what I've seen.

And if you know me, you know I'm not a cheerleader or even an optimist.  I'm usually the first person with criticism, and I still have criticisms of this movement:
  • There still needs to be more of an effort to reach out to under-represented communities-- not just people of color, but working people, activists who work on other causes, suburbanites, hipsters, the elderly, high school kids, EVERYONE.  I'm still seeing a whole lot of white college kids out there.  Nothing against them, but a mass movement needs to include-- and be led by-- a truly representative group.  
  • While I think the reasons for the occupation are perfectly clear, the goals and action plans still aren't.  That's probably partly because it's incredibly complex and is going to take some time.  But that's the next step.  We've come together, we've raised our voices, what's next?
  • Personally, I think the protest needs to evolve.  Winter is coming.  An "occupation" outdoors, with no tents (at least here in MN) may not be realistic.  But maybe we can transition into some other model of constant protest.  That presence out there is powerful, but it's not sustainable.
All in all, however, this is a very special time, a very important time.  While not everyone supports the Occupy movement, or feels safe physically attending the protests, or has the time to devote their lives to this movement-- I do think that we all need to figure out how we fit into what's happening right now.  Maybe it's about making more of an effort to go to the protests.  Maybe it's thinking up new ways to protest.  Maybe it's about spreading the word and communicating these messages to everyone we know.  Maybe it's something else.  Whatever it is, though, now is the time.

Finally, I posted this as an addendum to the last post here, but in case you missed it, I found an HQ video of my speech at Occupy MN last Friday:

Monday, October 17, 2011

Mini-Documentary about Occupy MN featuring me

Spilt Magazine, along with Above Ground Magazine, produced this video. It features me, Ilicit, Brother Ali and a bunch of the occupiers.

Occupy Minnesota from Spilt Magazine on Vimeo.

It actually features a lengthy segment of my last-minute poem/speech about how the word "revolution" has to be a concrete thing and not just an abstract concept, that progressives have to have a gameplan beyond "raising our voices," that struggle means sacrifice and hard work and paying attention to the day-to-day details of movement-building.  I didn't want to just read a "rah rah we're so great" kind of activist poem (after all, the other speakers were inspiring and optimistic), so I ended up with this... a pretty awful poem, honestly, but a speech that spoke some hard truths.  At least I hope.

The very best thing about the Occupy Movement that I've experienced is how it opens up conversations.  I've talked to more people about activism and movement-building over the past two weeks than I have in a long time.  That's incredibly valuable.  But there's a lot more to be done.  Follow the progress here and on Twitter here.

Also, I'll be performing a hip hop set down at the People's Plaza on Wednesday at 5pm before another march on the banks.  Hope you can make it!

Related: "Thoughts on Occupy MN" by me and "How the Occupy Wall Street Protesters Can Defeat the Corporate Elite" by Yotam Marom (forwarded to me by Dan DiMaggio); worth a read.

EDIT: I just found a HQ video of my entire speech:

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A LOUD HEART release party news

Mark your calendars.  For real.  If you don't come to this show, I'll become a Republican or something. Here's the Facebook event page.

More promo, videos and details will be released over the next few weeks, but A LOUD HEART is the acoustic rap EP that me and Claire Taubenhaus have been working on.  Some of you may have heard the first single, "Just a Song," on my mixtape or on the Best Love is Free compilation (if not, peep the link for a download).  The album as a whole turned out really good, and we'll have 100 limited edition, painstakingly hand-made copies w/ lyrics sheets available at the show.  It'll also be available online, but not before the show.

Best of all, we got BLACK BLONDIE and an acoustic set from KRISTOFF KRANE opening up.  That's a very special lineup.  For real.  I want to see you there.  It's the early show (7-10), so you can still go do whatever afterwards.  And it's 18+.  Like I said, more info to come, but please set aside the date. (Thanks to Ali Oswalt for the watercolor!)

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Praise and Constructive Criticism for Occupy MN

So yesterday was the kickoff for Occupy MN, the Twin Cities version of the big Occupy Wall Street protests. I wasn’t there all day, but was around for most of the afternoon and into the evening, and got to witness the rally (where I also performed), general assembly and milling-about time.   Wasn't able to make it back today (I was speaking/performing at the Ramsey County Youth Conference), but I plan on being there throughout the upcoming week and beyond.

Anyways, I hate to be an arm-chair organizer (I haven’t been around for planning meetings or whatever), but I’d rather share my thoughts than keep them to myself.

First, a few thoughts and observations on what was good:

1. Spirits were high. All-day protests are tough because the crowd ebbs and flows. But there were a lot of people there, seemingly all day, and I didn’t get the sense that people were frustrated with all the milling about. People were having conversations, networking, hanging out—it was fun.

2. This movement is coming from a very ideologically pure place. I would argue that it doesn’t always work in practice, but at the very least, the intentions behind horizontal organizing and true democracy and wanting everyone to have a voice are very cool. Lots of people taking care of one another out there today.

3. I wouldn’t say that the crowd was super diverse, but it wasn’t as white as it could have been. Faint praise, maybe, but I think this is something that all of the organizers are really thinking about and taking seriously. Again, I’m not sure what they’re doing tactically to reach out to communities of color, working class people and other underrepresented groups, but the fact that the speakers’ list was genuinely diverse is a good start. And the speakers themselves did a great job.

4. The most exciting thing about Occupy MN, for me, is the opportunity to engage in some good community education. We’re going to have workshops and teach-ins and discussions all week, and I think that will be great.

5. Media coverage has been quite good, at least from what I’ve seen. Even our local Fox News affiliate covered the protest in a very positive, almost encouraging, light.

And a few thoughts and observations on what could have been better, because that’s always more interesting (and useful) to talk about:

1. Although the speakers were all good, I’m a pretty firm believer in the idea that at a rally, it is more important to put on an inspiring, dynamic program than it is to let everyone who deserves to speak get a chance on the mic. Maybe that makes me a horrible progressive, but I’m thinking about movement-building here. Have a meeting a week before the rally, figure out what people are most concerned about expressing, and consolidate those points into the speeches of three-to-five dynamite speakers instead of a dozen who may or may not be that engaging. Trim the fat, basically. At most rallies, most people say the same stuff anyway. Of course, the speakers’ list has to still be representative, but it’s something to think about. The audience has to come first, because that’s who you’re trying to inspire and motivate.

2. Although the turnout was good, it could and should always be more. We’re talking about an issue that directly affects everyone, not just this professional class of activists. How can we reach out to people who don’t normally come to protests? I think part of it has to do with the fuzziness of the protest’s goals and agenda. And I realize that that’s part of the open, democratic nature of how it was organized, but I would argue that “regular people” (i.e., not hardcore activists or college students) need something logical and pragmatic to latch on to—especially if they’re coming straight from a long day of work or have to find a babysitter for the kids. “This teach-in will feature this amazing speaker so come see it.” Or “this rally will spark a specific campaign to address a specific issue.” Or “this march will directly target this politician/CEO/jackass so come and be a part of it.”

3. The general assembly was kind of a mess. Decision-making with enormous groups is always a challenge, and this WAS the very first one here, but still—I’d argue for breaking people into committees right away. We’d already been standing around for hours, let’s get down to some action. That way, we can also do away with the ridiculous call-and-response speeches—just have facilitators in every breakout group explain the process to groups of 20-40 people at a time. When you have 200 people ready to get involved, ready to ACT, you can’t let them get bored. You can’t let them get frustrated. Not right away. Energy like that needs to be focused, immediately, into an activity or discussion that is truly participatory and inspirational.

4. The endless nature of this protest makes me nervous. You can mobilize a thousand people for one day. But day after day after day? Into the winter? I’m just wondering what the strategy is here? I’d rather have, say, a week of events, or an every-Friday protest ongoing, or something other than an every day, all day occupation. It just seems like the kind of thing that, aside from being logistically complicated, will turn more people off, like “I respect their goals, but I ain’t sleeping outside.” And besides, it’s not really the kind of occupation that’s truly disrupting anything. It’s visible, though, so that’s a good thing—as long as the numbers stay up.

5. If you can’t tell, I’m a pragmatist. I think this protest could benefit from having a flyer—maybe one side is what the protest is all about, and the other side is five concrete action points that people can take. Maybe this is something that comes out of the general assembly, or maybe it's something that I should just go ahead and do, but those two questions—“why should I care” and “what can I do”—are incredibly important when it comes to creating new allies (as opposed to continually trying to mobilize the same few hundred folks who make up “the usual suspects”).

But all of these are relatively minor points, and wide open to debate and disagreement. Did other people have similar thoughts? Am I off-target on any of these? Let’s talk about it.

Overall, I’m excited about the prospect of a strong, multi-issue movement that can challenge the powers that be. I’m excited about taking part in community education sessions. I’m excited about this movement—or more specifically, the people who make up this movement—figuring out what we’re doing and moving forward with concrete actions. It’s an exciting time to give a damn about the world.

Finally, I want people to check out this short essay from B.Dolan, one of my favorite hip hop artists and co-founder of KnowMore. It’s a suggestion for some concrete things that this movement can accomplish. Definitely worth a read.

Hope everyone can get involved this week.  Follow on Twitter at @occupymn or #occupymn.  Big ups to everyone already there.  Keep fighting.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Unique Techniques Podcast featuring Guante, plus "No Capes" video

Guante -- No Capes (Acapella) from Unique Techniques on Vimeo.

Unique Techniques is a podcast facilitated by Patrick Pegg, aka Precipitation.  He's a producer, MC and youth worker, and his new podcast is something serious.  Episode one featured Carnage (a local legend and one of the most talented people you'll ever meet), and episode two features me.

If you have an hour to kill, check it out; we had a pretty engaging conversation-- about hip hop, poetry, activism, influences, tattoos and a million other things.  Here's the link to the podcast episode, and it should be on iTunes as well.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

New song! The Rube featuring Guante & See More Perspective

Rube - Shotgun Soliloquy feat Guante & See More Perspective by UrbanWorld Records

The Rube is a great guy and a really unique producer.  He specializes in "electro-swing" with some hip hop undertones.  This track is called "Shotgun Soliloquy" and features some shit-talking raps by me (first) and See More Perspective (second).  A lot of fun.  Check it out.

In other news, a bunch of really cool shows coming up-- benefits, college shows, club shows and two VERY special ones:

1. A LOUD HEART release party at Honey on 11/11.  This is the acoustic rap project that me and Claire Taubenhaus have been working on.  Expect more promo stuff for this soon, but mark your calendars now.  It'll be an early show, 7-10pm.

2. DEATH POETRY JAM at Intermedia Arts on 11/28.  This is a show I'm putting together that will celebrate life by talking about death.  Expect poems, songs and stories about ghosts, zombies, ancestors and the life/death cycle.  It's really going to be something special.

Hope to see you there.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Live Poetry, Sans Audience

Sometimes it can be nice to perform or listen to a piece in an unnatural environment; you get to feel new things in it. Here are two pieces that I perform all the time, taken out of the slam/theater/club context and shot simply. For me, the most revealing thing about these is that they're both four minutes long, and that when in front of a big crowd, I speed them up. I like this pace, though, so it'll be something to work on.

Thanks to Amani Media-- check out her website for a ton of other stuff.


The Family Business:

Friday, September 16, 2011

Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi both have new books out; some thoughts

It should be no surprise that the Twin Cities are home to some of the best poets in the country, spoken-word or otherwise. We’re particularly lucky to have Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi, both of whom just released new books through Coffee House Press. If you like poetry, spoken-word or just good writing in general, you need to know these names. They’ll be having a joint book release reading on September 24 at the Minneapolis Central Library at 8pm.

Ed’s new book is called “Whorled,” and it picks up right where his last book, the excellent “Real Karaoke People” left off, with gorgeously-written lyric poetry next to prose poem storytelling, a dense multitude of characters, scenes, stories and moments, an unflinching exploration of the places where the immigrant narrative and the “America narrative” collide, overlap and devour one another.

The capital-p Poetry here is breathtaking. Coming from a spoken-word background, I tend to value content and how the writing serves the central thesis of a given piece more than the pure lyric qualities of the poetry. But Ed does both extremely well here—the writing is unpredictable, formally-challenging and downright pretty, but it also communicates. This isn’t art for art’s sake, but it’s as good (in a traditional sense) or better than most poetry that does identify like that. And that’s no small feat.

Highlights include “If in America,” a gut-punch of a poem exploring the 2004 Chai Vang case (video above), “Ode to Bruce Lee,” a deceptively complex meditation on race, masculinity and culture, and the sprawling, powerful “Whorled,” which creates connections between language and history, between human communication and inscrutable time itself.

It’s a hell of a read. Sherman Alexie and Li-Young Lee think so too, if my word isn’t good enough for you. Here’s a purchase link.

Bao’s debut collection, “Sông I Sing,” hit me in a different way. The poems here, at least to me, read like spoken-word pieces, and Bao’s understanding of structure and emotional arcs mirrors some of the tricks that we use in the slam world—for example, each of the poems in this collection has a knock-out last line. The result is an incredibly emotional journey through the issues that Bao explores—but it’s emotion that’s grounded in quality writing and thoughtful political analysis, not just raw melodrama. Again, that’s no small feat. If Bao ever decided to re-enter the slam world, I think he’d kick all our asses.

The highlight here is probably the section called “The Nguyêns,” a brilliant and even-more-brilliantly-realized concept that looks at over a dozen unrelated characters all with the same last name. These characters each own their culture(s) and struggle with their identities in different ways, and the result is a moving (in both senses of the word), impressionistic portrait of Vietnamese America. Other poems like “Race,” “Giving My Neighbor a Ride to Her Job” and more talk about race and racism in this country in a way that is eloquent yet unforgiving, righteously angry yet never once weighed down by the sensational histrionics associated with so much spoken-word.

The best poetry is transformative—it breaks you down, changes you, makes you see the world in a new way. “Sông I Sing” does that as well as any poetry book I’ve ever read. It’s gorgeously angry, laugh-out-loud funny and I even teared up a couple of times while reading it. And again, don’t take my word for it—Jeff Chang, David Mura and Li-Young Lee all loved it too. Here’s a purchase link.

I hope you'll check out both of these collections.  They both remind me what poetry is capable of, and give me inspiration to keep writing, reading, listening and communicating.  Maybe they will for you too.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Unsolicited Advice for Young Rappers

(photo by Mark Louie)

Just realizing that I know a lot of young (age 16-25 or so) hip hop artists, and I find myself saying the same things to all of them. I figured it’d make sense to formalize some of that stuff and put it in an essay, kind of a “ten things I wish I knew when I was your age” thing. Not that I’m that old (I’m 28) or that successful (arguable), but I feel like these are some things that are worth having a conversation about.  It’d also be great if other people left comments about things that I missed, or maybe things I got wrong. Let’s create a good resource for young artists.

One note, however: these tips aren’t about “getting on.” They’re about building a meaningful career. Those are very different things. If you just want to get on 2DopeBoyz or Nah Right, or play the First Ave. mainroom or whatever, go do that. But these ideas are for younger MCs just starting to think about music as a real career, as something they can leave behind, as a way to connect to people. A lot of it does overlap with traditional conceptions of generating buzz, but that’s definitely not the main point.

1. Before you do anything, think long and hard about what the word “success” means to you.
If you’re just rapping for fun or to express yourself, that’s great. Always keep that in mind. If you want to make a living off rap, that’s going to involve different tactics and strategies. And if you aspire to something even bigger, whether getting filthy rich, changing people’s lives, putting yourself in a position to influence policy and culture or whatever, you’ll definitely need a solid gameplan. This essay isn’t about telling you exactly how to do all of that stuff, but it’s important that you know why you’re doing what you do.

2. If you sound just like someone else, why would anyone want to listen to you? 
It may make sense that if Artist X is famous, and you sound just like Artist X, then you will get famous too—but it doesn’t work like that. When a copycat artist DOES get on, it’s for a variety of reasons. Most of the time, though, biting a more popular artists’ style (whether consciously or unconsciously) just makes your music that much more disposable. If you can communicate to an audience that you’re a fresh and exciting original voice, they’ll reward you for that.

3. “Good beats and good rhymes” are not the end goal; they’re the basic foundation. 
A lot of MCs seem to be just going through the motions—no creative song concepts, no memorable punchlines, no vulnerability, no heart, no honesty, no originality, no reason for me to give a damn. They might “work hard” at writing rhymes, but it’s not about the technique itself; it’s about what you’re doing with your beats and rhymes—what makes you different from every other rapper on the planet? A HUGE part of doing this right is the revision process. Your first drafts ARE NOT GOOD ENOUGH. Write a song, and then go over that song over and over again, making it better. Tighten up rhyme schemes, replace filler lines with quotables, try to pour as much of yourself as you can into every bar. It’s not about writing a 16 every day of your life, or recording a hundred songs and then choosing the best 10 for your album—it’s about putting thought and intentionality into your songwriting.

4. Take your time. 
The world might try to sell you the idea that hip hop is a young man’s game, but it’s not. Most MCs don’t release anything worthwhile until they’re 30—don’t let Mac Miller fool you. Have fun. Hone your craft. You only get ONE debut album, so don’t waste it on songs you’re going to hate in five years. Artists these days are way too quick to release music and go on tour; wait a year or two and really have something powerful to stand behind, something you can book a real, profitable, meaningful tour behind. A CD-R of the first fifteen songs you ever wrote is not going to do that. “Learning as you go” may be part of hip hop, but it’s not written in stone.

5. Get honest, constructive feedback from people who aren't your best friends. 
No matter how brilliant you are right now, you could be a whole lot better. When you first start rapping, all of your friends (who may or may not know anything about hip hop) are going to big you up, buy your mixtapes, tell you how amazing you are and how you deserve to be famous. They’re all full of shit. Find people—maybe an older artist, a rap veteran, a music critic or whomever—who will tell you that you’re wack… and will also help you get better.

6. It’s not all about club shows and touring. 
Until you’re relatively famous, club shows and touring are both kind of depressing and not all that profitable. Look into colleges, conferences, summits, community centers, rallies, house parties, abandoned warehouses, parks and other non-traditional venues for hip hop. You’ll meet more cool people, more attentive listeners and probably get paid better. Be careful not to over-romanticize the idea of hard work; hustle harder, but hustle smarter first. “Paying dues” doesn’t have to mean sleeping on floors, driving for hours and hours in a smelly van and playing dive bars in front of a dozen drunk jackasses. Be creative, and pave a new path for yourself. What worked ten years ago for Sage Francis is NOT what’s going to work today.

7. Creative song concepts are very important. 
Underground rappers LOVE rapping about rapping, telling off ex-girlfriends, writing horrible love songs and talking really vaguely about all the abstract thoughts in their heads. Try writing a song about a topic that no other MC has ever written a song about. It’s not as hard as you might think. Tell a story we haven’t already heard a hundred times already. Remember: the word “hook” doesn’t just mean chorus; it also refers to the thing that makes a given song different from other songs, whether that’s the approach, the concept or whatever. Songs have hooks; sometimes albums have hooks; sometimes entire careers have hooks. Utilize them. This makes for better art, but it also makes for more marketable art; it’s a win-win. Even if I don’t like your music, if you write an entire song breaking down the U.S. military industrial complex through the lens of imperialism in the Philippines, I’m going to have to give you props for that… and I’ll remember you name, too.

8. Being memorable is more important than being good. 
You’re not trying to impress people, you’re trying to connect to them. A flashy rhyme scheme or intense stage show might get people to say “wow” in the moment, but if you want them to really support you, buy your CD, etc., it’s more important to write songs that speak to them on a deeper level. Fans aren’t the same thing as supporters. Fans will nod their heads at your show, but they won’t spread your music around; they’ll listen to your tracks on Bandcamp, but they won’t pay for them. Figure out who your target market is (hint: it’s not “everybody”) and really try to reach out to them in a genuine way.

9. It is a far better thing to say something meaningful to ten people than say absolutely nothing to a thousand people.
Think about what you’re writing and why you’re writing it. Anyone can jump around on stage like a jackass and rhyme words together—what do you want to leave people with? How do you want them to remember you? If you died after this show, what would they say about you? At the end of the day, you have to be a good/interesting/experienced human being before you can be a truly great MC. Don’t get me wrong—you can have a wildly successful career while not saying anything new, interesting or meaningful. But if you’re an artist, you have access to a platform that very few people have. You will meet thousands, maybe millions, of people through your music. Do you really want to look into the eyes of a million people and say “I sure like rapping” or “let’s party?” I’m not saying that every song you write has to be some universe-shattering manifesto; but if being an artist is anything more important to you than a fun hobby, you should be thinking at least a little bit about your legacy.

10. Grab bag of random tips (that I sometimes forget myself): 
Don’t cup the mic when you’re rapping. “Getting signed” is increasingly meaningless; go indie. Always be nice and polite to sound people, venue managers, bartenders and the other people who are at your show because they have to be. Use Twitter and Facebook, but don’t depend on them. Change up your stage show so it’s not 45 minutes of rah rah punch-you-in-the-face music; that stuff is exhausting. On that note, play shorter sets; you’re not Atmosphere—a half-hour is probably plenty of stage time for you. Leave them wanting more. Be serious about your money, but be just as serious about your relationships; playing a show “for exposure” is not necessarily a horrible thing. Every time you say the word “bitch,” no matter how you’re using it, you’re alienating a huge fraction of your potential fanbase (same goes for homophobic slurs, obviously). Do not ever perform over your own tracks; get the instrumental versions (it sounds a hundred times better with just one layer of vocals). Practice, practice, practice. Know what you’re doing on stage when you’re not rapping—don’t just stand there awkwardly. Get your friends the hell off the stage. Always have a business card or a handbill with your website/contact on it. Listening to an MC freestyle can be thrilling; listening to an hour-long freestyle rap jam session is torture (there are certainly exceptions to this rule, but you’re probably not one of them). Don’t spam people. Do send out press releases. Learn how to write a press release. Drink tea. Have fun. Be cool. Smile.

Finally, read this, and then go knock ‘em dead.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In Defense of Spoken Word and Slam Poetry

(originally published at MN Mic; re-posting here with some revisions)

In my experience, many of the criticisms directed at slam and performance poetry are founded in an ignorance of what the form really is. People today are criticizing what slam poetry was five years ago, or they went to one really bad open mic and hated it, or they watched a particularly uninspired episode of Def Poetry Jam and decided that all spoken-word is platitude-ridden, clichéd sound and fury.

And to be fair, there's plenty to not like about spoken-word.  But as much as I criticize spoken-word, I still believe in it.  In an effort to assuage the fears of some potential audience members (and/or performers), I’d like to address a few myths:

We all know the stereotype. Some twenty-something with a goatee and beret gets on stage and reads some really awful, trite, cliché-ridden poetry about how “the government is corrupt” with a lot of passion and intensity; his rhythms are predictable and his voice goes up and down for no apparent reason. The audience goes wild.

I’d be lying if I said that this didn’t happen now and then, but so many would dismiss the entire art form due to the presence of a few hacks, or perhaps just some kids who are starting their journeys as writers. This is a willful ignorance.

It is true that many (not as many as you might think, but quite a few) performance poets have adopted a standard vocal style, and certain themes (alienation, identity, depression, radical politics, sexuality, etc.) come up at slams and open mics more than others. But show me a genre of music or form of expression where this isn’t the case. Singer-songwriters all sing about relationships in 4/4 time with a guitar. Rappers rap about how good they are in sixteen bar verses with eight bar hooks. Every form has its own standard, and every form is dominated by hacks and artists who are simply following a formula. If anything, spoken-word has a much HIGHER ratio of originality and talent to mediocrity than, say, indie rock or novel-writing (or page poetry, for that matter) or whatever other art you’d like to compare it to.

That’s not to say that every spoken-word artist is a completely original, convention-defying genius. But if you go to a slam today, you’re more likely to see and hear something inspiring, hilarious or powerful than something that embodies the stereotypes associated with the form. Spoken-word, at least the version of it that we’re talking about (since technically, it’s been around forever), is still a very young art.

On some levels, this might actually be true. But the key question is “according to whom?” Is the broader poetry community judging spoken-word by the same standards they judge some creative writing professor’s villanelles? The form is fundamentally different. It’s a performance art; yes, some subtlety might be sacrificed at times because the listener doesn’t have the luxury of re-reading lines and analyzing every word choice, but this is a conscious decision. It’s extremely important to remember: spoken-word is written to be performed; it’s not the same as reciting poetry written for the page and we should not judge the two by the exact same standards.

The best spoken-word takes elements of page poetry, theater, oratory, stand-up comedy, preaching and other vocal forms and mashes them up into something new and incredibly engaging. No, the focus isn’t always on the “pure” lyric, and while some might say that this fact dilutes the art, I’d argue the exact opposite. I think that poets’ balancing form, content and delivery is making poetry more relevant, exciting and meaningful. Language does, after all, exist as the written word and as the spoken/heard word; spoken-word poetry gets to explore places that page poetry cannot go. I’m not saying that one is better or worse than the other; they’re just different, and this should be celebrated.

Also, remember that spoken-word is about the democritization of poetry. Anyone can get up at an event and perform something. And sure, this means that you might here something not-so-great because the person performing literally just wrote their first poem yesterday. But the good here greatly outweighs the bad. A slam or open mic might not always be 100% revelatory, but it's a space for people to express themselves; it's about process as much as it's about product.

I’ve heard this from both academics who hate hip hop and want to associate spoken-word with what they consider violent, sexist doggerel, and from hip hop artists who think that spoken-word poets are just rappers who can’t stay on beat. Both are way off.

As someone who is both a rapper and a spoken-word poet, I can say that the two share some elements but are fundamentally different. At slams and open mics these days, you rarely hear rhyming poetry; you’ll hear free verse, theater-style monologues, persona pieces and much more, and rhymes are there but are generally in the minority. Poets who try to rap generally aren’t very good, and rappers who try to compete in slams rarely do well. If anything, I’d like to see more cross-over and cooperation between the two communities. I think they could learn a lot from each other.

Again, there is some truth in this statement, but it ignores the wider context. Slams (which are, for those who don’t know, competitions in which performing poets are given scores from a panel of judges) are imperfect things, but they’re also a means to a very important end. The idea behind slam has nothing to do with poets’ stroking their egos; it’s a way to build the community—to get poets writing, to get people to come watch them perform and to make spoken-word events more exciting and audience-oriented. Slams are responsible for getting people, especially young people, excited about poetry again, and the value of this cannot be overstated.

Yes, sometimes the best poets don’t win. Sometimes a really loud, flashy piece will beat an exceptionally thoughtful, well-written piece. But slam is about democracy. As a poet, you have to be able to connect to your audience, even if that audience is in a dive-bar somewhere, only half-listening. The best slam poets are able to strike that balance between content, form and delivery, to write something beautiful and meaningful and perform it in a way that grabs people and gets a point across perfectly. It’s a great challenge, and in my opinion, very healthy for poetry.

First of all, let’s not forget that spoken-word is as old as language itself. In some form or another, it’s always been with us and will always be with us. I’ve been talking about a specific manifestation of it (the post-Beat, late-20th century slam and spoken-word cultures), but it’s a form with enough flexibility and power to never truly disappear.

And as someone who has been to five National Poetry Slams, performed countless times all over the country and run a million writing and performance workshops for youth, I can say with certainty that even this specific manifestation of spoken-word isn’t going anywhere. It’s only going to get more popular.

Nationally, the spoken-word community is big, diverse, supportive, talented and ready for the next big stage. High schools all over the country have spoken-word clubs. Universities are starting to teach spoken-word as a legitimate literary form. Slams and open mics are popping up not only in the usual places like New York, Chicago and San Francisco, but in small towns across America and beyond.

People who disparage spoken-word or slam should attend the Quest for the Voice youth slams that happen every year through the Minnesota Spoken Word Association. They should see the Brave New Voices national youth slam or the Louder than a Bomb festival, and feel the positivity and overwhelming sense of community in those spaces. They should talk to the countless adult poets who aren’t obsessed with scoring points in slams and simply appreciate having a platform on which they can share pieces of themselves. They should talk to the students I’ve worked with who have performance poetry to thank for being able to overcome social anxiety and low self-esteem, or the students who have used performance poetry as their gateway to discovering page poetry, or social justice activism, or whatever their true passion might be.

I don’t want to come off as overly defensive though. Of course, some people just don’t like listening to someone else performing poetry. There’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t go to death metal concerts. But I recognize that I avoid death metal because it doesn’t appeal to my personal sonic tastes, not because I think it’s full of blood-drinking Satanists. We should like or dislike things for the right reasons, and I have no problem with people criticizing spoken-word; I just wish they’d be more informed when they do it.

Monday, August 29, 2011

What Makes Effective Spoken-Word or Slam Poetry?

One of my favorite activities to do in a workshop or class is just brainstorming around what makes effective spoken-word or slam poetry. We all have different standards, and since spoken-word is so new for so many people, sometimes those standards vary wildly. Obviously, there’s a lot of room for debate, and I think that that debate is a very healthy, necessary thing in our community. Here are the standards that I use, forged in those discussions and hardened by my experiences in the slam scene, in the arts education scene and elsewhere.

1. Context matters. Just because you scored a 30 in a slam doesn’t mean that your poem will succeed at a rally, in a high school classroom or even at a different slam. Spoken-word doesn’t have to be able to work in a vacuum—it’s okay to write with a specific performance venue in mind. Know your audience. A good poet uses this knowledge to hit as hard as he or she can in a particular scenario.

2. Substance > style. For me, spoken-word is more than pretty art—it’s an opportunity to say something to an audience. Too many poets waste that opportunity. I’m not saying that every poem has to be a grand political manifesto, but the best spoken-word is powerful and ultimately transformative because of what it says, not how it says it. Of course, form brings content to life, and good writing will give a poem’s message longer legs, but at the end of the day, pretty words with no meaningful foundation ring hollow.  And yes, I know that this is a particularly controversial point in poetry circles, but it's what I believe.

3. Challenge the audience. The best art doesn’t tell people what they want to hear—it pushes them out of their comfort zones. It doesn’t repeat the slogans and platitudes that the audience already believes in; it helps them to see things in a new way. At the same time, remember point #1. A poem that is cliché for one audience might be revelatory for another.

4. Do not manipulate your audience; do not exploit your subject. A poem can be sad, a poem can be angry and a poem can deal with heavy subjects. But if there isn’t some kind of deeper point to all of that raw energy, you run the risk of simply toying with people’s emotions in order to get them to cheer for you. So if a poem is going to be about dead babies or domestic violence or genocide or whatever, it damn well better have a message that goes beyond “wow war is sad” or “murder isn’t good.” I like calls to action. I like poems that toy with the relationship between personal and political.

5. Being original and memorable is more important than being “good.” What new perspective do you have? From what new angle can you attack a given target? If you’re going to cover well-trod territory, how are you going to make your work stand out? Remember, any idiot can write good poetry. Creative Writing programs around the world churn out would-be masters every semester. Your challenge is not to “write well;” it is to slap your audience in the face with something meaningful, powerful and memorable. Again, good writing can help you do that, but it should never be your only goal.

7. Be specific. A poet is like an archaeologist. You don’t walk for miles with a metal detector, picking up bottlecaps; you find a little three-foot by three-foot space and dig as deep as you can. Less-effective poets often want to write a single poem that addresses everything that’s wrong with the world—“war is bad, racism is bad, poetry is good, we should save the environment,” etc.—and the result is a watered-down laundry list of social ills that doesn’t really say anything. Instead, turn abstract concepts into concrete images. Don’t write about “war,” write about a specific person in a specific war dealing with a specific problem. Don’t write about “love,” tell a detailed story about a specific moment in your life when you felt loved.

8. Study the art of poetry. I know a lot of these points have forced “good writing” into the background, but it’s important to note that while I believe you can write a brilliant slam poem that isn’t a brilliant capital-P Poem, good writing is generally a very important tool for bringing a message to life and making a spoken-word piece more palatable and interesting. So don’t just get up on stage and rant and rave. Understand dynamics, structure, metaphor, imagery, assonance & consonance, rhythm, concrete vs. abstract language and all of the little things that go into making what is traditionally considered good poetry. Even if you want to break rules, you should be able to do so intentionally.

9. Perform to the audience, not at the audience. This is a subtle point, but one that’s been very important for my growth as an artist. A good spoken-word poet doesn’t beat the audience over their heads with words and ideas; instead, he or she attempts to create a real connection between speaker and listener. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how this is done, but good poets use everything—not just words and voice; it’s in the approach to the mic, the posture, body language, eye contact, use of negative space and more. It’s about manipulating the energy that exists in a room to draw the listener into the piece.

10. Poetry—especially spoken-word—is about communication. At the end of the day, you’re not up on stage to celebrate how brilliant you are; you’re up there to open up lanes of communication, to say something that might get someone else to think or feel something, to build community—artistically, intellectually and physically. We are all extremely privileged to be a part of this movement, and as artists, we are regularly given platforms that most people don’t have access to. Make it count. Be extraordinary. Do not ever settle for a first draft. Be tireless in your pursuit of the truth that can only be spoken through poetry.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Summertime Hip Hop Family Business at the Asian-American State Fair

1. Here's a new song featuring me, See More Perspective and Heidi Barton Stink.  It's a remix to See More's song "Summertime Hip Hop BBQ Jam for the World."  I'm the second verse.  And it's a free download. 

Summertime Hip Hop BBQ Jam for the World REMIX by SEE MORE PERSPECTIVE

2. Here's a new video of my poem, "The Family Business."  This summer, I've figured out that almost all of my poems are three and a half minutes long (or longer), and I've been squeezing them into three minutes in order to compete in slams for the past five years.  While there's cooler footage of this piece on the internet, this one is actually at the proper pacing:

3.  I'll be playing at the MN State Fair, at the AFL-CIO pavillion, on Tuesday, 8/30 at 4pm.  If you're going to go to the State Fair, why not just go that day at that time and check it out?  It should be fun.

4. Here's an interview with me in the Asian-American Press.  An excerpt: "Cowboy Bebop, the labor movement, comic books, legos, root beer, social justice activism and the Green Bay Packers."

5.  From giving the keynote at the TLT conference in Duluth to opening up for the incredible B.Dolan here in MPLS to tearing down the UW-Madison Terrace with Kristoff Krane and the NEM crew, to playing various shows with Prolyphic, Prayers for Atheists, Toki Wright, Junkyard Empire and others, to having yet another installment of our Hip Hop Against Homophobia series, to helping run a weekly social-justice-and-the-arts series at the Canvas, to kicking off the MN Activist Project, to facilitating workshops at the APIA spoken-word conference, the Loft's teen writers' summit and Rivertown Commons, to writing and recording a ton of new material that's better than anything else I've done (stay tuned for that), and more,  this has been a wild summer.  And Fall is only going to get wilder.  Thanks for listening.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

proposed additions to the poetry slam MC spiel

This post may only be relevant to a few people, but I figured it'd be good to make it public.  After a long discussion, a few of us in the Twin Cities spoken-word scene proposed a few changes to the standard host/MC spiel that happens at every slam.  Usually, the spiel just talks about the rules and philosophy of slam-- how scoring works, how the audience is encouraged to participate, how much time each poet has, where slam comes from, etc.  Some of us, however, want to add a two things:

1. A note about maintaining a physically safe space in the audience.  Cynthia French forwarded me a link to another event organizer's (Rich Villar) thoughts on this, and I think it's something we can apply too.  Wording can change, but something like this:

"We are committed to maintaining physically safe spaces for all people attending these public programs. All participants are expected to maintain appropriate public decorum and respect all other individuals—and their persons—within the spaces we occupy.  While we recognize and support every individual's capacity for change, anyone choosing not to follow this code by practicing threats, intimidation, unwanted advances, or unwanted physical contact on another individual will be asked to leave."

2. A more explicit call for audience empowerment with regards to policing what happens on stage.  We already ask the audience to verbally respond to what they like or don't like, through snaps, cheering, hissing, etc.  This would just be about emphasizing that a little more, and making sure it's clear that this applies not only to the poetry being performed, but to the hosts' behavior and any other public behavior happening.  Again, the wording can change, but here's what I'm thinking:

"Performers are not censored here, and are free to talk about any subject matter in whatever way they want to talk about it.  At the same time, the audience is not censored either.  So even though only five of you have a scoring paddle, you're all judges.  If you hear something beautiful or thought-provoking, feel free to respond, with snaps, with verbalizations, whatever... as long as it's sincere, respectful and doesn't drown out the poem.  And if you hear something that offends you, whether it's a poet using racist, sexist or homophobic language, or the host talking to someone in the audience in an inappropriate way, or even another audience member screaming offensive things at the judges, it's up to you to let them know how you feel."

Both of these additions are really about holding slam to higher standards.  We are not just an arts scene.  We are not just a social circle.  We are supposed to be on the leading edge of the intersections of art, community and social justice.  That doesn't mean that we should all be writing political poems; it means that the very structure of slam is infused with these principles-- anyone can be an artist, anyone can appreciate art and anyone can criticize art.  These spaces that we create should reflect those democratic principles.  A slam should absolutely challenge the audience, and sometimes make them uncomfortable; but it should never make anyone feel unsafe.  I don't see that as a "fine line."

And while this discussion has been slam-focused, I think it's worthwhile for the hosts and organizers of other events like open mics and community readings to think about this stuff too.  We do a version of this spiel at the Canvas, the teen arts center that I help coordinate, and it seems to work pretty well.

But there's a lot to still figure out.  Particularly with that first point, how will it be enforced?  Who will field any possible complaints-- the slammasters?  The hosts?  The audience?  If someone is going to be "asked to leave," who is responsible for asking?  I'd assume the slammasters, but maybe I'm missing something.  Maybe there's another line in there to be added about protocol.  Feel free to post any thoughts or ideas in the comments section here.

Monday, August 01, 2011

Guante & Big Cats! plus B.Dolan on 8/13 at the Fineline

Me and Big Cats! haven't played a full set together in quite a while, and I'm hoping we can debut some of our brand new material.  I'm also excited to see B.Dolan live again; I just wrote a little blurb on his terribly underrated 2010 album "Fallen House, Sunken City," but if you still haven't heard the album (or the artist, one of the freshest and most passionate in progressive hip hop), here's what I said, plus a very cool video:

If you think Dolan is just a Sage Francis clone, you need to check this one out with an open mind, because there's a world of difference between the two.  Both are big guys with beards, and both combine political messages with personal drama and a smartass attitude, but Dolan is much more of a pure spitter, and his voice is fuller and more powerful.  This album has the ambition of a weirdo-indie-rap concept album, but that ambition is backed up by a rock-solid delivery and production (courtesy of Alias) that bangs as hard as anything coming out of the boom-bap traditionalist camp these days.  Definitely one of the most slept-on albums of last year.

So I hope you can come to the show. I don't have a whole lot on the calendar locally for a while, so if you're going to come out, this is the one to go to.