Sunday, December 29, 2013

2013 Guante Year in Review

photo by Elliot Malcolm for Dharma Hype

I'm a long-term planner. I knew 2012 would be a huge year, but I had no idea that 2013 would be even bigger. Here's a sampling of what I did this year. As always, endless thanks to everyone who has supported me, given me opportunities, or just paid attention. A rundown:

Monday, December 23, 2013

In Defense of “Local Artists”

Originally published at Opine Season

I’m not sure how common this is in other scenes, but in hip hop, the phrase “local artist” is very often used pejoratively. It brings to mind that MC or producer who was never good enough to break out from his or her hometown, that starving artist playing the same sets at the same dive bars, year after year.

To be sure, that does happen. You’re never going to be famous and sell lots of records if you focus all of your energy on just one community. But the assumption that every artist’s goal is to “be famous and sell lots of records” is a dangerous one. The assumption that playing 200 shows in 200 cities has more inherent value than cultivating a substantive presence in your hometown is a dangerous one. And the assumption that anyone who talks about this stuff is just making excuses or “aiming low” isn’t healthy for the culture or for our communities.

When I think about the artists who have had the biggest impact on me, the artists who have actually changed my life, very few of them are nationally-known. Or if they are nationally-known, it’s just a side-effect of the work they do in their communities. Almost all of them could be classified as “local artists,” even if the locales are different. They’re people doing important, concrete work in their communities, using art not just to express themselves, but to carve out space within those communities for positive things to happen. They’re using their art to create platforms for other kinds of media, for organizing, for education, for a whole host of goals that go far beyond fame and fortune.

Obviously, being engaged locally and being famous are not mutually exclusive. Someone like Boots Riley of the Coup can have an international following while still doing great work in Oakland. Invincible in Detroit, the Figureheads in Milwaukee, Geologic in Seattle, Jasiri X in Pittsburg—this list could go on and on. None of these artists may be household names, but the impact they’ve had and are having is immeasurable.

Of course, the more famous you are, the more of a platform you have to spread whatever message you want to spread. I’m not arguing that being famous is bad. I’m just saying that I have a lot of respect for artists who consider fame as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. This isn’t about scolding anyone for not being “conscious” enough; this is simply about recognizing the potential that artists (from the most revolutionary slam poet to the most apolitical shoegazing indie band or party rapper) have to be changemakers in our communities, in ways that go far beyond the occasional benefit concert.

This is about re-imagining the possibilities. I don’t believe that the highest calling of an artist is to leave, to get famous and never look back. I don’t even believe that art is the most important thing artists have to offer.

What really inspires me is seeing things like I Self Devine facilitating community organizing trainings, Tish Jones mentoring the next generation of artist/activists in the Twin Cities, Bao Phi mobilizing communities around the Miss Saigon protests and much more, Brother Ali attempting to have critical conversations about race with his fanbase, poets from the Button Poetry collective using their platform to signal-boost other poets ten times further than they could go on their own, Tall Paul organizing the “Cold Flows for Warm Clothes” event last week at the Cedar, Adam J. Dunn shooting free music videos for dozens of local artists, all of the artists who donated their time, talent and networks to help defeat the marriage amendment in 2012, Wing Young Huie and B-Fresh, both of whom don’t just take brilliant photos, but make a point to share that knowledge and support other artists too, B-Boy J-Sun passing down the history and culture of breaking… not to mention Desdamona, Tou Saiko Lee, Kristoff Krane, Crescent Moon, See More Perspective and far too many other teaching artists to name all creating space for young people to express their authentic selves.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, too. Some of these artists are nationally known, some of them will be someday, and some of them potentially won’t be. But what they’re building right here, right now, is important. Art isn’t just pretty pictures and catchy melodies. It’s the lifeblood of a community. It’s a platform to broadcast ideas. It’s a tool to frame issues. It’s a way to connect the past, present and future. It’s an excuse to bring living, breathing human beings together. I’m grateful to everyone who continues to do that. Keep building.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

New Video of My Poem REACH via Button Poetry

Can't overstate how much good work the folks over at Button Poetry have done this year. More on that later. For now, check it out, and feel free to share! This is one of my signature pieces, and it's nice to have such a quality video of it here.

Transcript here.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Practical Ways We Can Stop Centering Everything Around White People’s Feelings

Originally published at Opine Season

Fun fact: white people’s feelings are magic. They can bring any conversation, meeting or movement to a halt. In a debate, they can outweigh even the most credible, concrete evidence. They can threaten someone’s job. They can even kill. White people’s feelings are one of this country’s most abundant natural resources and important exports.

Because of all this, any conversation about social justice, power, or history is going to naturally settle into orbit around white people’s feelings. And I get it: if we want to really do something about racism in this country, it’s white people who need to change the most, and it’s white people who often have the longest political/spiritual/emotional journey to undertake.

But when social justice education and/or media focuses solely on understanding racism through a white privilege framework, that can recreate the same oppressive structures we’re trying to destroy. When the conversation has such a laser focus around educating white people and carrying their emotional baggage, what potential voices, perspectives or frameworks are missing? We may be moving forward, but how are we defining “we?”

As someone who is both a social justice educator and who identifies as at least somewhat white myself, I’d like to explore some other options. How else can we engage in anti-racist work without having everything be about white people’s feelings? A few possibilities:

Separate Spaces
This kind of work is already happening, but I think it’s worth noting: we can continue to develop programming that is specifically for white people (alongside programming that is specifically for any identity group) rather than relying on the “catch-all” approach that alienates, bores or infuriates so many students (specifically students of color). In these spaces, we can talk about white people’s feelings without having that conversation derail the other work that’s happening. “Caucusing” can sometimes be controversial, but it can also be effective.

Maybe that’s a strong word, but in social justice education spaces, we can acknowledge that some material is going to make white people (or men, or straight people, or any other privileged group) sad. Or angry. Or guilty, confused, defensive, etc. And we can acknowledge that, and then we can just keep moving. As a facilitator, it’s not your job to “save” anyone. As an educator, you want to get your point across and cultivate understanding, but when all of the energy in the room goes into making a handful of defensive white students feel better, that’s not healthy or productive for the larger group.

Sometimes, Education Isn’t the Answer
Sometimes, the personal/cultural change happens after the institution has already moved on. There may be times when the funding, time and energy poured into “diversity education” initiatives could perhaps be better spent changing the fundamental structure of the institution. We can teach an all-white board of directors about the importance of racially-inclusive language, for example, or we can fight to get people of color on the board of directors. Education is always going to be part of the larger movement toward racial justice, but that doesn’t mean that it is the absolute answer in every scenario. Clearly, education and organizing are not mutually exclusive (just the opposite), but as the saying goes, “the work is not the workshop.”

White People: Do Your Homework
Most of the points on this list are for educators and organizers who work in these spaces. But those of us who are white can do more, proactively, even outside these spaces. Read books. Listen. Suppress the urge to always get defensive about everything. Never rely on someone else to do the emotional dirty work for you, or hold your hand while you do it. Related to this point, one of the most powerful things I read this year was Mia McKenzie’s “No More Allies” piece here.

Brave Spaces vs. Safe Spaces
I’m not sure who came up with this framework, but I think it’s very important. In any social justice education space, it’s worth acknowledging that it’s good to be challenged and to be uncomfortable. Of course, we need to take care of ourselves, but “taking care of yourself” should never mean “sticking your head in the sand to avoid all criticism and/or difficult conversations.”

A common thread in all of these points is that change isn’t predicated on anyone’s feelings; change is the product of collaborative, intentional work. Education matters—and even feelings matter—but only as much as they make that work easier or harder. When all of the energy in an educational campaign or organization is poured into making sure the people who already carry the most privilege aren’t getting their feelings hurt, that hurts movements. We can do better.

Nothing I’m saying here is new; these are ongoing conversations that will continue to shift, evolve and come to new conclusions. I also, clearly, have my own baggage and biases around this topic. Feel free to add to this list, post relevant links, etc.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

December Updates: New Video, New Book, Last Show of the Year, More

1. If you missed it, check out this new video, a special extended version of "It Is Cold Here, But It Is Also Hot," my poem about the iconography of the Twin Cities. I performed this version at the Literary Death Match and the Fall Media Forum.

2. I'm going to be in this anthology from Button Poetry called "Viral," with both a poem and an essay. It features all of the Button poems that reached over 200,000 youtube views this year, and explores the intersections of poetry and virality, and what that means for the culture. Available for pre-order now!

3. My last show of 2013, and only local show until mid-January, will be Homeless' CD release party on 12/21 at Cause in Minneapolis. He just finished an album with the Van Gobots, and he's always been wildly talented, hard-working and supportive. Two of my favorite artists: Chantz Erolin and Big Cats, will also be on the bill. Hope to see you there. Here's his new album:

4. Something people should be aware of: the saga of Prof. Shannon Gibney at MCTC, who was reprimanded after two white male students complained about having to learn about structural racism. If you work in higher ed anywhere, but especially in MN, this is a story you should know. Check out Prof. Gibney's essay at Gawker here. There should be some action steps soon; here's a petition you can sign for now.

5. I performed at the Safe Schools campaign kickoff event, and am continually inspired by the work being done by OutFront MN and the other organizations involved. If you'd like to plug in, check this out.

Finally, look out for another big surprise or two before 2014. Keep building.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Few Intro-to-Guante Links: Poetry, Music and More

Tons of new traffic here lately, thanks to both an Upworthy post and a string of big performances this past month. First: thanks so much for checking out the site. Here's a quick intro to me:

Here's my official bio, including links to all social media, and nice things people have written about me. To expand on that:

I'm a poet
I'm a two-time National Poetry Slam champion, which doesn't necessarily mean much, but I've been doing this for about ten years. I write a lot about working class identity, gender & masculinity, race and culture. A big part of my work as a poet is facilitating workshops or discussions on power, identity, privilege and activism, using art as a jumping off point. You can browse ALL of my spoken-word videos here.

My TEDx Talk is probably one of the best ways to get a feel for what I'm about.

I'm an MC
You can stream and/or download all of my music here, and here is a quick sampler mix of what I feel like is my strongest work:

I'm an Educator/Writer/Activist too
A few links:
  • Here's my BOOK, which is probably the best introduction to what I do.
  • My primary work is traveling to colleges to perform and facilitate space for dialogue. I also work in high schools and middle schools as an artist-in-residence. If you want to book me, here's how to do that.
  • Here in the Twin Cities, I've worked with both TruArtSpeaks and MPD150.
  • This website has all my stuff, but I also try to build, compile, and share resources for both aspiring/emerging artists and activists.
There are a million other things. Explore the site. Like the Facebook page; follow me on Twitter. Thanks! More content coming before the year is out.

Friday, November 22, 2013

New Video for "Ten Responses to the Phrase 'Man Up'"

This poem has been out there for a while; the original is up past 100,000 views. The original also happens to be the first time I'd ever performed it, very soon after it was written. The video above is a revised, memorized version, and I think the quality is a little better.

Thanks to Button Poetry for capturing it and posting it. What they've done over the past year in terms of being a major signal boost to slam poets all over the country has been inspiring and important.

And just as a snapshot of my life: I'll be on MPR today at 9am discussing the legacy of JFK and reframing the idea of "service." Then performing with the legendary Jamie DeWolf tonight at 6:30pm at the U of MN's Bell Auditorium. Then giving a keynote tomorrow morning on social media stuff at the Fall Media Forum. Then finishing up my new mixtape. Check out the FB page for details on all that stuff.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

On Power and History: Five False Equivalencies

Originally published at Opine Season

I met a college student last month who didn’t understand why so many people were angry about blackface (as part of a Halloween costume). Like a lot of people, he just saw it as “dress-up,” not as any kind of provocative or political statement. After we had a conversation about the history of blackface, however, he got it. The problem was that a lack of historical perspective resulted in an incomplete picture.

Without an understanding of how power works, both in the present and historically, of course people are going to set up false equivalencies, push back against discussions of privilege, and refuse to engage with social justice issues. Frequently, if conversations about offensiveness and privilege aren’t also conversations about history and power, they don’t go anywhere.

In my work, I come across the false equivalencies that result from this lack of historical context with alarming regularity. A few common ones:

“If you think ‘Redskins’ is so offensive, why aren’t you also protesting the Vikings?”
Well, “Viking” isn’t a racial slur, first of all. But this also relates to any Indian-themed mascot—Chiefs, Indians, Braves, etc. The larger issue is that Scandinavian people don’t carry with them a centuries-long history of betrayal, oppression and genocide. Scandinavian people aren’t economically, politically and socially marginalized. And Scandinavian people aren’t currently protesting or speaking out about how Viking mascots/logos perpetuate harmful stereotypes and reflect the silencing of Scandinavian voices in other realms.

“How come Johnny Depp shouldn’t play Tonto but it’s okay for Idris Elba to play Heimdall, a Norse god?”
First, there’s the simple matter of numbers. “Whitewashing” characters happens a lot more than the opposite, especially when we’re talking about lead characters (as opposed to extras, comic relief, sidekicks, etc.). Second, the practice of casting white actors over actors of color is connected to a long, painful history of silencing the voices and experiences of people of color, normalizing whiteness and centering our collective mythology around heroes who are white.

I’d be fine (well, fine-ish) with a white Kaneda (in the proposed “Akira” adaptation) or a white Katara (in “The Last Airbender”) if there were a ton of other opportunities for Asian or Indigenous actors to get good work in Hollywood. But there aren’t. There are hardly any. “Colorblind casting” or “just trying to get the best actor for the role” are fine concepts in theory, but they almost always play out in harmful, status-quo-supporting ways.

“Why do people complain about women being objectified in media when men are too?”
Let’s use comics as an example. Yes, Batman has perfect abs. Namor wears some very revealing clothing. Most male superheroes have sculpted, sexy physiques too, just like the women.

But the objectification of women in comics is tied to the objectification of women in real life. Here’s a video game example: Liu Kang and Kitana might both have perfect bodies, lots of exposed flesh and non-existent personalities, but if they were real people, one of them would be making less money for performing the same fatalities.

There are many reasons why men outnumber women by such wide margins in politics, business and positions of power and authority in general. One of them is because women have had to deal with discrimination, paternalism, lack of representation and harmful stereotypes (less capable, too emotional, etc) for thousands of years. They’re also viewed as objects, in part because of how they’re represented in media.

“Why are so many artists speaking out against ‘Miss Saigon’ at the Ordway? That’s just censorship.”
Censorship is about power. A group of concerned citizens trying to convince a multi-million dollar institution to change, or trying to spread the word about the problems with the musical, or protesting outside the theater—none of this is “censorship.” (Be sure to read David Mura’s piece on this here).

Compare this to an educational institution reprimanding an educator who dared to have a discussion about racism in her class. Whether or not you use the word “censorship,” the power dynamics are simply different—and those power dynamics matter.

“I know what it’s like to be oppressed too because one time I was the only white kid in an African-American studies class!”
As all of these examples illustrate, oppression is bigger than “feeling uncomfortable.” It’s about representation, money, and power. It’s about how institutions are structured. It’s about history, and how historical events, trends and attitudes continue to affect the present. Without this larger perspective, conversations about social justice are likely to remain just that: conversations.

Friday, November 08, 2013

YOU BETTER WEAPONIZE One Year Later: "Name Your Price" For a Limited Time!

To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the Guante & Big Cats album "YOU BETTER WEAPONIZE," we're making it pay-what-you-want (including nothing) for a very limited time. Click the cover below to go get it.

I think it's the best music I've ever made, and some of the best music Big Cats has ever made too. From the songwriting, to the concepts, to the humor, to the poetry, to the dynamics, to the substance-- there is nothing else like this album in hip hop, indie or otherwise, and that's what I'm most proud of.

A few kind words:

"An all-around firebrand... the tracks are political but also personal, impassioned without becoming preachy, and always original." --Josh Jackson, Paste Magazine

"Guante and Big Cats create intelligent, political hip hop that mercifully doesn't come off as preachy or self-righteous. It's sobering, demanding your attention like a car crash, yet emotional and alarmingly intimate at times." --Michael L. Walsh, City Pages

"While 'Weaponize' contains sexy beats, biting social critique, and a hard-to-ignore case against apathy, deep down what it really all boils down to seems to be one simple thing: love..." –Jon Behm, Reviler

“Since he emerged in the Twin Cities a half-decade ago, Guante has built an artistic empire of forward-thinking ideals. Assertions on gender issues, institutional racism, class warfare, identity politics, and homophobia, among other progressive causes, show up in his work paired with the haunting stomp of Big Cats! bangers as the backdrop.” –Jack Spencer, City Pages

“Their new album captures Guante at his best as he delivers powerful cultural and sociopolitical theses with a blazing clarity, and it serves as excellent companion piece to P.O.S and Brother Ali's latest records.” –Andrea Swensson, The Current

“Guante establishes himself as the Twin Cities answer to East-Coast lyrical gods like Pharaohe Monch…” –Zach McCormick, The Wake

"Political rap. Conscious rap. Smart rap. Whatever you want to call it rap– You Better Weaponize is exactly what I love about all things hip hop..."

Monday, October 28, 2013

Russell Brand, Ty Moore and the Difference Between Voting as a Strategy and Voting as a Tactic

Originally published at Opine Season

Like many of us, I learned as a teenager that voting was the single most important thing a person who cared about creating change could do. In social studies and history classes, protest movements were generally referred to as things that happened in the past, and that today, we could only engage in the political process by casting a vote every few years.

In college, I learned that this wasn’t true. I learned that real change happens because of organized social and political movements on the ground that put pressure on politicians or even work outside existing power structures to create positive, sustainable change. Voting (particularly in a two-party system dominated by corporate money and power) was treated as a distraction, a way for the powers-that-be to co-opt struggles and ultimately weaken them.

Both viewpoints find avatars in this recently-viral debate between comedian Russell Brand and journalist Jeremy Paxman. Brand argues that to vote is to be complicit in a system that does not care about common people, while Paxman continually returns to the point that voting is just how democracy works.

It took a long time for me to unlearn this “either/or” framework. Both sides of the debate are easy to embrace (one is practical and realistic, the other beautiful and revolutionary) and simultaneously easy to denounce (one represents drone-like assimilation into a harmful system, the other pie-in-the-sky abstract idealism). And both sides are flawed.

For me, it boils down to strategy vs. tactics. If you care about, for example, environmental justice, or the prison industrial complex, or combating poverty, “voting for the right candidate” is not a winning strategy. Challenging massive, entrenched systems takes mass movements encompassing an array of tactics—educational campaigns, media campaigns, direct action, marches, rallies, boycotts, canvassing, building trust and community, and much more.

But that doesn’t mean that electoral politics can’t be one facet of this larger strategy. Running for office, attempting to influence people already in power and voting can all be useful tools when incorporated tactically and intentionally into a movement.

Elections represent a few important opportunities. First, they’re winnable. Even small victories are something concrete and energizing, which helps sustain larger movements (when these victories are put in a means-to-an-end context and not treated as ends themselves). Second, they’re a great media force-multiplier: because so many people still see voting as the primary way to “get involved,” a specific candidate can sometimes spread the word about an issue further than a broader activist campaign can; they may even be able to mobilize people who wouldn’t otherwise get involved. Finally, elections can put good people into positions of power. We’re not just talking about the president here—this is about school boards, city councils, state reps and more. Local elections are a power bottleneck, and it just makes tactical sense to take advantage of them.

This year, I’m particularly excited about Ty Moore’s city council campaign here in Minneapolis. Moore is a committed activist, with experience working on the ground with Occupy Homes MN and a wide range of other struggles. He has so much experience, in fact, that when I first heard he was running, part of me asked “won’t this distract from the other good work he’s involved in?” But seeing how his campaign has grown, witnessing the community support that has blossomed around it, and talking to Moore himself, I’ve become convinced that his bid for city council really illuminates a lot of what I’m writing about here.

Occupy Homes MN is one of the most inspiring activist campaigns I’ve ever seen, and in their endorsement of Moore they stated:

"As our movement grows, it is critical for us to transform our grassroots demands into concrete policy change. Having a grassroots champion like Ty on the city council can help us turn Minneapolis into a nationwide leader in policies to ensure safe affordable quality housing is a human right for all and that we have democratic control of our homes."

Voting can matter. Getting good people into office can matter. Neither Moore himself nor Occupy Homes MN are naïve enough to believe that getting Moore elected will be any kind of magic key; but they can see the possibilities. And those possibilities are worth fighting for.

Voting by itself is never going to change the world, but neither is anything “by itself.” Movements are big, complex, multi-layered organisms. If we care about creating change, we have to reject the narrow views of how change happens, and embrace every opportunity to make our communities– and our world– better.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Reflections on my week-long artist residency at El Centro College in Dallas

I spent this past week at El Centro college in downtown Dallas, TX, teaching some 20 classes, plus performances, discussions and more. While this is the kind of work I do all the time, El Centro was my first opportunity to combine the more in-depth, week-long residency work I generally do in high schools with the kind of arts-and-activism material I do with college students. And it ended up being one of the best experiences of my career.

Monday, October 14, 2013

On Reframing the Debate Around Racist Halloween Costumes

Originally published at Opine Season

Every year in recent memory, October is when progressive writers, bloggers and activists try to convince people that dressing up like a stereotype of someone else’s culture for Halloween is maybe not such a great idea.

There is now an online treasure trove of writing on the subject, and each autumn adds a few more thoughts to chew on, even if the overall message remains the same. Here are a few examples, including this one from my own blog:

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, uncreative costume idea and you should have thought of something better.

Thea Lim at Racialicious breaks down the bigger issue:

The reason why “ethnic costumes” are so problematic is because they posit a cultural identity as a costume – they compress the complexity and intricacy of an entire culture into dress-up; into something that anyone (or really, usually someone with class and race privilege) has the right to use for the most superficial purposes.

Adrienne K. at Native Appropriations talks about how this isn’t just politics or PC-policing; it’s about human beings. There is an emotional cost:

Last night I sat with a group of Native undergraduates to discuss their thoughts and ideas about the costume issue, and hearing the comments they face on a daily basis broke my heart. They take the time each year to send out an email called “We are not a costume” to the undergraduate student body–an email that has become known as the “whiny newsletter” to their entitled classmates. They take the time to educate and put themselves out there, only to be shot down by those that refuse to think critically about their choices.Your choices are adversely affecting their college experiences, and that’s hard for me to take without a fight.

Students at Ohio University came up with a powerful poster campaign fighting back, as Jorge Rivas writes in this piece for Colorlines:

“This is happening across the country. It’s not just here in Athens, Ohio,” says Williams, who is the president of a student group at Ohio University called Students Teaching About Racism in Society (STARS). The group, made up of 10 students, has created an educational campaign called “We’re a Culture, Not a Costume” that juxtaposes images like the one Williams saw last year with an actual African-American student. It adds a simple statement: “This is not who I am, and this is not okay.”

And time and time again, there are the same responses:

It’s not a big deal. People are just having fun. Get over yourself.

No matter how many times I hear these responses, I’m baffled. I get that most people don’t have access to high-quality multicultural education or in-depth conversations about oppression. I get that most people, especially people coming from privilege, aren’t constantly engaged with these issues. But this isn’t exactly social justice rocket science.

We’re not talking about reparations or the need for an armed rebellion to overthrow white supremacy here. This is just about having the common decency to not treat someone else’s culture like a prop, to choose one of the millions of other Halloween costume ideas out there rather that one of the few dozen racist ones.

It is mind-boggling to me how this debate is always framed as “why shouldn’t I be allowed to dress up like a stereotype?” as opposed to “why would you want to dress up like a stereotype?” But that's how power works. Some people get the benefit of the doubt, some don't.

The burden shouldn’t be on people of color to “prove” that something is offensive; the burden should be on the (overwhelmingly, but not exclusively) white kids who consciously choose to dress as stereotypes to explain their awful choices.

Of course, they will. They will rationalize and whine; they will get defensive and try to derail the conversation. But the pressure to think critically and cultivate empathy will be on them.

And some will get it. Some may only need a little push. I encourage people to re-post any of the articles linked to above; continue this conversation in whatever spaces you have access to. I hate that we have to start with facepalm-inducing stuff like “blackface makeup = bad,” but the conversation around racist Halloween costumes has the potential to be a gateway for so much more. This is never just about Halloween; it’s about whose stories and histories are valued in our society. It’s about how stereotypes dehumanize entire communities and lead to policies and practices that hurt people. It’s about making the connections between the so-called “little things” (like Halloween costumes, but also like Miss Saigon at the Ordway, the name of the football team based in our nation’s capital, and much more) and the larger reality of oppression.

Finally, for the inevitable comments that accompany any piece like this, a few preemptive responses:

If it’s “not that big of a deal,” then it should be super easy for you to just choose a different costume.

If the only way you can “just have some fun” on Halloween is to choose a costume that you know offends people, that is kind of sad.

And if you’re angry that someone has the audacity to point out that your costume is offensive, I guess all I have to say is this:

Get over yourself.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Don't Buy Miss Saigon: A Few Must-Read Pieces

(photo of the Don't Buy Miss Saigon unity event outside the Ordway)

If you follow my blog or my regular Opine Season column, you may notice that I talk a lot about social justice through the lens of pop culture-- offensiveness, language, representation, etc. Many writers and bloggers do this, because pop culture is a common baseline, something lots and lots of people understand. Potentially, it can be a gateway to begin to understand some broader ideas related to oppression and justice.

Here in the Twin Cities, the Ordway is presenting Miss Saigon again, and there's really no better example of how our culture can form the foundation of both oppression and liberation, depending on how it's used. I could write about why I think the musical is messed up, but some of my favorite writers in the world already have. Check these out:

Bao Phi: War Before Memory: A Vietnamese American Protest Organizer's History Against Miss Saigon

David Mura: The Problem(s) With Miss Saigon (or, how many stereotypes can you cram into one Broadway musical)

Naomi Ko: The Plague of Miss Saigon

Multiple Voices: Don't Buy Miss Saigon (Our Truth Project)

Lots of good stuff in those links, and Bao's piece in particular is just devastating and essential.

This is, of course, about a single piece of art that perpetuates stereotypes and harmful narratives; but it's also about more than that. It's about whose voices we value. It's about whose stories get to be told, reinforced, and driven into our collective cultural consciousness. It's about who gets to represent our community and who doesn't. It's about money. It's about institutions. It's about evolution.

For Twin Cities arts administrators, arts professionals, promoters, organizers and artists in the Twin Cities, these points are absolutely vital to consider. This is bigger than Miss Saigon.

It's interesting to juxtapose the Miss Saigon protest with Andrea Swensson's recent piece on Caroline Smith and appropriation, or Toki Wright's "Love Letter to the Twin Cities" (here, scroll down), or my piece on local iconography, "Cherry Spoon Bridge to Nowhere." I love the Twin Cities. And I love the Twin Cities arts scene. But that love is not unconditional. We-- and especially those of us in positions of power as gatekeepers, funders or tastemakers-- need to ask some difficult questions and ultimately take part in providing some difficult answers.

And for those of us who aren't in positions of traditional, capital-P "Power," it's business as usual: keep fighting. Keep pressuring the established institutions to be better. Keep building our own institutions to be even better. Keep making brilliant art and building community through it.

Because with any protest like this, it's about the issue, but it's also about the people. We can argue back and forth about what is or isn't offensive, or how this is just PC censorship, or how art should be completely free, or whatever. I'm past that conversation. What I saw last night were literally dozens of my heroes (and a few hundred other cool people), some of the people I respect and look up to the most in my life, fighting for what they believe in. These organizers are beyond inspiring to me, and make me want to quadruple the work I've been doing. Thanks to all of them.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Activists and Artists Should be Better at Social Media; Here Are a Few Tips and Tactics

Originally published at Opine Season

Because this is something that’s come up at almost every workshop, discussion or event I’ve been part of recently, I wanted to post a kind of quick-and-dirty social media training for activists and artists. Then I remembered our wonderful editor Matt Peiken, however, and how he’s always been good about reminding me that this is an op-ed blog. So let me put this in the form of an opinion:

“Social media” as we know it has been around for a decade now, and there is no excuse for any progressive organization (or artist, or business, etc.) to not take full advantage of its power. It’s time to stop making rookie mistakes. It’s time to stop going through the motions and thinking that just because your organization or campaign has a Twitter, that that means anything.

So in that spirit, I wanted to gather a few helpful tips, tricks and strategies for people—particularly activists and artists—who want to use social media more effectively. This won’t be a guide on how to get a million followers or an in-depth look at web analytics or anything—more of an intro for those who might know the basics, but still feel a little intimidated.

Which Platforms Are Most Important?
There are many social media platforms out there, but we’re going to focus on Facebook and Twitter. Those two are vital, whether you’re a nonprofit trying to reach more people with your message or an up-and-coming rapper trying to build your brand. YouTube is a big one too, but using it is a little more self-explanatory; furthermore, mastering Facebook and Twitter will help you use YouTube more effectively too.

It’s definitely worth it to look into Tumblr and Instagram too (and SoundCloud if you’re a musician). These are all growing and can be very useful tools. For the sake of space, though, let’s focus on Twitter and Facebook.

A Few General Tips:

  • Have a home-base. For me, my social media sites are tentacles all reaching out from my primary site. Whether your home-base is a professional website you built, or a wordpress blog, or even a Tumblr, it’s good to have one. This is the place where people can find all the information they’d ever need about you or your organization. When you’re posting on social media, you can post links that lead people back to your primary site.
  • Don’t link your Twitter and Facebook accounts together. There are tools that will let you do this, so you only have to post in one place instead of two. But as we’ll see below, the two platforms have different rules when it comes to posting. Better to do a little extra work and keep them separate.
  • Post videos and photos, not just text status updates. People like looking at things more than just reading about things. Take advantage of all the media at your disposal.
  • Engage with others. Don’t forget the “social” element of social media. These aren’t just platforms for you to promote yourself. That’ll be part of what you do, of course, but to really maximize your reach, you have to have conversations, promote other people’s work, ask questions, get into debates, reach out to others and engage.

Twitter: Tips and Tactics
Of these two platforms, Twitter is arguably looser and more flexible. It works as a tool to promote specific events or links, but its real value is its ability to broadcast your personality and build your brand. It lends itself to random thoughts, jokes, links to good articles, questions, and whatever’s on your mind.

Obviously, don’t go overboard. Posting a hundred times per day is not a good strategy. But don’t overthink it. The quality of your posts is more important than their frequency, at least with Twitter. A few tips:

  • The first question everyone asks: how do I get more followers? There’s no magic key. If you follow a lot of people, some of them will follow you back. If you say insightful things or post interesting content, people will “RT” (retweet or re-post) what you’ve posted, and more people will follow you. If you engage with others and have conversations, more people will follow you. Most importantly (by far), if you exist in the real world and do good, interesting things in real life, more people will follow you.
  • Engage with people. Have conversations. Remember, though, that when you START a tweet with someone’s handle (@theirname), only people who follow you both will see it. So if you want a larger audience for a tweet that’s directed at someone, just throw a period at the beginning. For example “.@elguante you are my hero.”
  • A hashtag (#something) is a way to find people from all over talking about the same subject. If you’re talking about racial justice, and you add #racialjustice at the end of your tweet, you can then click on that and see everyone else in the world who is posting with that same hashtag. If you’re at an event, rally or march, this can be a powerful organizing tool too—if everyone is posting with a (for example) #rallyforjobsMN hashtag, everyone can be on the same page.

Facebook: Tips and Tactics
Twitter is fun, but right now, Facebook is where most of your engagement is really going to happen. When I post links back to my primary website on both platforms, usually about 90% of the traffic is driven there by Facebook.

The rules are different, though. While Twitter sometimes rewards constant posting, Facebook does not. You can post links and/or status updates on your page (we’re not talking here about your personal profile, but the “Page” you’ve set up as your business, organization or artist), just like Twitter, but only a fraction of your audience actually sees what you post (you can see this at the bottom of any of your posts; it’ll say something like “475 people saw this post.”)

For example, I have almost 5,000 likes on the Guante page. If I post a new song or a link to an event, usually around 1,000 people “see” it. Sometimes it’s more; sometimes it’s as low as 200. You can pay Facebook to make a particular post reach more people, but who wants to do that? Luckily, there are some effective tactics to get around that:

  • The key word is intentionality. Resist the urge to post whenever you have a thought. You have to consider time of day, frequency of posts and other factors. I generally post once in the morning (around 8am) and once at night (around 9pm), because that’s what I’ve found to be effective when it comes to maximizing my reach. But I’m an artist; your audience might be online at different times, especially if you’re an activist organization or a nonprofit. Trial and error.
  • I try not to post more than twice per day. A lot of people I know only post once per day. Some do more, but again—the more you post, the more you dilute the power of an individual post. I don’t have the tech background to understand how this works, but it’s what I’ve found.
  • Strive for interactivity; rather than just posting a link to an event, post the link and try to start a conversation about that event. Ask questions. Show your personality.
  • Don’t forget about the “use Facebook as your page” button. If you add other pages to your page’s “favorites” list, you can then log in as your page (as opposed to your personal profile) and comment on their posts. This is a great way to increase your visibility and build community.

Why All This Matters
Having a social media presence is never enough. Real success—whether you’re running a political campaign or just trying to get famous—comes from hard work, old-fashioned face-to-face outreach/networking, and substance. But social media is still an invaluable tool, one tactic in what has to be a larger strategy.

Of course, it’s about the work first. Having a million Twitter followers to promote to doesn’t mean anything if the work itself isn’t worthwhile. But you’re probably doing good work. If that’s the case, it is not just in your best interest to promote it, it your responsibility to promote it. Social media will never be the only way to do that, but in 2013, there is no reason not to take advantage of its power.

This is all clearly just the tip of the iceberg, though. What strategies, tips and tactics have worked for you or your organization?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

New SIFU HOTMAN video for "Whose Planet? Our Planet"

The last song on the project, and I think the three of us agree that it's our favorite. Something to move to.

You can grab the whole project for FREE here, or buy the limited-edition vinyl here.

Directed by PCP (@pcpmeltsfaces) for Unique Techniques
2nd Camera by Elliot Malcolm
Audio Engineered by Adam Krinsky
Filmed @ Bellows Studio Downtown Saint Paul, MN

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Opening for Saul Williams 9/12; looking back at summer 2013

(Thursday, 9/12 at Icehouse in MPLS; click the image for ticket info; image taken from the internet)

I always want to be critical of anyone who is propped up as the "best" in any given community or medium. But Saul is just too good. If you've never seen him live, get your tickets now; you won't regret it. He's one of the most powerful, most transformative live performers you will ever see. And I'm opening.

It's a great way to wrap up what has turned out to be the busiest summer of my life. A quick review:

1. Released a new album (on vinyl and free digital download) called SIFU HOTMAN. I love it.

2. Spent the summer working with the MN Brave New Voices team, some of the most brilliant young poets I've ever had the pleasure of coaching. I'm beyond excited to continue working with Tish Jones to keep building the youth poetry movement in the TC. Check TruArtSpeaks for more.

3. Wrote 11 op-eds for Opine Season; along with site founder Matt Peiken and contributors Kao Kalia Yang, Ricardo Levins Morales, Vina Kay and others, propelled the site to be a force for hard-hitting op-eds in MN. Very proud of our work building something from the ground up, outside of established channels.

4. One of my Opine Season pieces was about Trayvon Martin and white people's role in the fight against racism. The piece got a ton of attention, and I ended up talking about white privilege and calling people "jerks" on MSNBC.

5. Shot seven new videos, released five of them so far:

6. Did an extensive website overhaul. Look around. Soak it in. Particularly proud of the updated "Resources" page.

7. Played a ton of shows, including the Red Hot Art & Music Festival, the Future History Festival, the Phillips Music Festival, the Grounds & Sounds Festival, the MN State Fair, another Hip Hop Against Homophobia installment, and a bunch more. Still making a living as an artist.

8. Also did my teaching artist thing consistently all summer, which is usually downtime. Too many to name, but I had the privilege of working with hundreds of young people in workshops, classes, facilitated discussions and more, here in MN and elsewhere. We talked about social justice, activism, identity & privilege, and of course poetry & performance. I take this side of my identity very seriously, and I'll be doing more residencies, workshops and alternative education stuff all year.

I'll be real: a lot of the stuff I do doesn't even make this list; it's behind the scenes stuff-- mentoring, organizing, consulting, etc. I work very hard. So if you're reading this, I appreciate it. I may not be your favorite MC, but I damn-well should be your favorite MC/poet/writer/media personality/content creator/educator person. Stay tuned for more.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Opine Season: Catching Up - On Racism, Language, Poetry, Privilege, Activism and More

I've been writing a weekly/bi-weekly column for MN-based op-ed co-op Opine Season since March (along with Ricardo Levins Morales, Kao Kalia Yang, Vina Kay and more). I usually re-post them here, but I've been so busy with new videos, new music, events and other stuff that I've let a few slip by. Just wanted to catch up:

How to Completely Miss the Point in a Conversation About Racism
The day after the Zimmerman verdict, I wrote a piece about white people and anti-racism that got a couple hundred thousand hits and a ton of comments. This piece is the follow-up to that, meant to address some of the critical comments and move the conversation forward.

In Defense of the "PC Police"
If you've seen my "A Visit from the PC Police" video, this piece contains a few supplemental thoughts on the power and importance of language.

Both Sides of the "Is Poetry Dead" Debate Miss the Big Picture
Another piece in what feels like an endless series of essays by me trying to position spoken-word as an art form and cultural movement that, you know, matters.

Let's Vision: What Can the Arts/Activism Scene in the Twin Cities Look Like?
I'm interested in using my column to share thoughts, but also be a platform for you to share yours as well. Check out my ideas about some things I'd like to see our scene do more or do better, and leave some thoughts of your own.

Think Twice Before Telling People to "Shut Up About Miley Cyrus"
On Miley Cyrus, Macklemore, Robin Thicke and why the so-called "little things," the pop culture moments that everyone gets up in arms about, really do matter.

BONUS: I also reviewed Earl Sweatshirt's "Doris" over at Reviler.

More to come. Check out my full Opine Season archive here.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Raise Up MN, State Fair Performance, Art/Activism Intersections

The busiest summer of my life continues.
This Friday, I will be performing at the MN State Fair. The show is part of a full day of workshops, direct action and performances organized by the MN AFL-CIO Young Workers group, in collaboration with the Summer of Solidarity Tour. All of the workshop, direct action and concert info is at THIS LINK; they are asking people to register, but registering also has certain perks. And the workshops should be very cool. You can, of course, just show up and watch too. The concert starts at 6pm at the MN AFL-CIO Labor Pavillion. See More Perspective, Lioness, Lydia Liza and more will also be playing.

Related to that, my Opine Season column this week is about trying to put our heads together and come up with some ideas for stronger, healthier, more effective artist/activist partnerships. I have some ideas, and I hope you have some too-- leave a comment over there.

I'm looking forward to taking a break. I mean, there are no breaks scheduled, but I'm still looking forward to the IDEA of taking a break. In case you missed them, be sure to check out my new video, "A Visit from the PC Police," as well as my new album, SIFU HOTMAN (available for free download), 

Monday, August 12, 2013

New SIFU HOTMAN video, album available NOW

That's the second video from this project, "Limb from Limb" (here's the first one, if you missed it). Some of you may remember the original version from the Guante & Big Cats mixtape "Don't Be Nice." This one has a new beat from Rube, plus a killer contribution from Dem Atlas. Hope you like it. Please share if you do. Also, the whole project is available NOW. Two ways to get it:

Stream/download it for FREE at our Bandcamp page 
There's also an option to pay a little something if you want to.

Buy the vinyl through Fifth Element
You can also get one directly from us at shows. We only made 200 (limited edition, hand-screen-printed sleeve, hand-numbered), and they're going disturbingly fast. So scoop one up now.

See us perform LIVE on 8/24 at Fifth Element
We're all so busy with our own stuff; we may not end up playing a ton of shows as a unit. But this one, for FE's annual parking lot sale, should be a lot of fun.

Finally, I don't always post the "official" press releases for my projects, but this one says pretty much everything I want to say about this:

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Grounds & Sounds, Phillips Music Fest and MC Professional Development Workshop

This is going to be a busy weekend, so I wanted to consolidate some info here.

Friday, August 16 2013:
Location: the Phillips Community Center (2323 11th Ave S. MPLS)
Time: 6pm

Part panel, part open discussion and part professional development workshop, this event will offer resources and knowledge to young people trying to make careers as MCs, producers, DJs, singers, poets or other artists. How do you get publicity in the local media? How do you get posted on rap blogs? How do you book a tour, or even just a show? How do you manage your internet presence? Join established artists Mavin MC, Guante, Big Cats and TBA to talk about all this and more, and have plenty to time for open questions. IF YOU KNOW AN ARTIST TRYING TO START THEIR CAREER, PLEASE PASS THAT INFO ALONG.

Saturday, August 17 2013:
Location: Groundswell Coffee (1340 Thomas Ave. St. Paul)

I'm performing a poetry set at 5pm along with Lewis Mundt. More info: the Second Annual G&S Festival promoting ART, POETRY, MUSIC, and COMMUNITY in the Midway. The purpose of the festival is to bring a multigenerational group of people from all ethnicities and backgrounds together to share expression, culture, conversation, and resources. In addition, the aim is to build community and connections between neighbors, schools, businesses, nonprofits, and artists through music, spoken word, games, theatre, speeches, resource & art booths, and a silent auction.

Saturday, August 17 2013:
Location: the Phillips Community Center (2323 11th Ave S. MPLS)

I'm performing a music set at 6pm. More info: An inner city music festival in the heart of the Phillips community that promotes love, diversity, and ultimately, music. This free all-ages event features an eclectic mix of local and global sounds with performances by Malamanya, Guante, I.B.E, Bomba Umoya, Tall Paul, Ketzal, Renée Copeland and Friends, Earth Shake, Alma Andina, and DJ sets by Radio Pocho and Mamadu(aka Toki Wright).

Monday, August 05, 2013

Both Sides of the “Is Poetry Dead?” Debate Miss the Big Picture

Originally published at Opine Season

Every few months, someone publishes another “Is Poetry Dead?” essay. I understand why—it’s easy click-bait, and there are certainly valid arguments to be made on both sides of the debate regarding aesthetic populism, outreach to new audiences, the accessibility of MFA programs and other weighty topics. The problem, however, is how the question is framed: poetry is dead because fewer people buy poetry books or read poetry journals, or poetry is dead because it’s stylistically stagnant, or poetry is dead because it doesn’t have a presence in the upper echelons of American media or culture.

Left out of these equations, due to either simple ignorance or a willful distaste for the form (and its practitioners), is spoken word. Even the inevitable response essays and counterpoints that talk about how vibrant and important poetry still is almost always ignore spoken word.

And spoken word is very much alive. Just about everywhere in the U.S. and beyond, colleges, high schools, community centers and after-school programs are using spoken word as a tool for both education and empowerment. Slam poets are going viral and racking up millions of YouTube views every day. Poetry slams and poetry-focused open mics are drawing larger and larger audiences. I, and a number of my peers, make a living as poets, whether or not we’ve been published. This movement is growing, and is only going to get bigger.

So why is spoken word ignored by those who claim to care so deeply about poetry? In some cases, it might be simple ignorance-- as popular as it has become, slam poetry could still be considered an "underground" movement, especially if your only engagement with poetry is through established, traditional channels. And to be sure, when people are exposed to spoken word, the odds are fairly good that they won't have immediate access to the best that the culture has to offer. To be frank, a lot of spoken word isn't great (which is true of any art, but magnified in spoken word because of its democratic nature; more on this later).

Beyond that, though, I can't help but consider some of the ageist, racist and classist undertones to this exclusion. Spoken word is driven by young people, especially young people who hold any number of misrepresented or oppressed identities. It foregrounds political engagement and the power of poetry to make the invisible visible. It is not controlled or regulated by the gatekeepers and tastemakers who rule the worlds of publishing and academia. As much as it is a continuation or revitalization of poetry, it is also a radical disruption of the structures and cultures that have been dominant for a hundred years. That all might have something to do with it.

In two days, I’ll be leaving for Brave New Voices, one of the biggest, most vibrant annual spoken word festivals in the world. I have the honor of coaching the team representing Minnesota this year. Out of respect for all the work they’ve been doing, I wanted to use this space to share a few thoughts on why I think spoken word is—and will continue to be—important.

Spoken Word Recognizes that Everyone Has a Story, and Every Story Has Value
Maybe some people think poetry is dead because they’ve built their ivory tower so tall they can’t see us moving around down here. A fundamental pillar of spoken word is that it’s open. It’s democratic. Anyone can show up, sign up, and share something. You don’t need an MFA, or a co-sign from some authority, or X number of publishing credits to write, appreciate or critique poetry. Poetry is for everyone.

Does that mean that you’ll often hear some stuff you don’t like at the local open mic? Of course. Hell, I dislike most spoken-word that I hear. But I can also see the bigger picture—at a given event (or online space like YouTube), you have the masters and the beginners, the innovators and the hacks, the elders and the youth, all right next to each other. Everyone learns from everyone. Everyone pushes everyone.

Furthermore, when you open up the space for performers, you also open up the audience. Spoken word, nationally, is truly multicultural and multigenerational. This means that it’s also relevant; it’s connected to the community. There is incredible value in that.

Spoken Word Creates Spaces for Real Community Dialogue
I’ve traveled all over the country as a performer, and everywhere I go, people are using spoken word to tell their stories. They’re talking about the issues that are important to them. They’re having in-depth conversations, networking and building movements. And whether the audience is in the dozens, hundreds or thousands, they’re doing all this publicly and loudly.

There’s a stereotype that all spoken word is political. And while subject matter in the spoken word community is actually very diverse, there is an element of truth to that stereotype—a lot of spoken word does deal with social justice issues. The key, however, is in understanding why that is. Where else can a teenager get up in front of 300 people and talk about racial profiling (and be applauded wildly)? Where else can a survivor of domestic abuse do the healing work of sharing her story? Where else are we celebrating both the linguistic ingenuity and the change-making ability of young people? Where else are we getting large groups of people in the same room at the same time to appreciate language, share our stories and build community?

These spaces matter; we’re witnessing an artistic movement, but also something that transcends that.

Spoken Word Pushes the Boundaries of Poetry and Performance Art
Both of the first two points could be considered “extracurriculars.” What about the art itself? Isn’t spoken word all just style-over-substance, formulaic ranting and raving and pandering?

Some of it is, sure. But if we’re going to judge a culture by its stereotypes, shall we talk about how all page poetry is soulless, masturbatory navel-gazing? Or how it’s all just intricately-constructed gibberish about trees and clouds and shit? Or how it’s all white yuppies refusing to engage with any issue or idea outside “the exploration of the now” for fear that writing something relevant will “dilute their Art?”

To generalize like that is unfair and inaccurate. Page poetry can be engaging and exciting. And spoken word is so much bigger than that one crappy open mic you went to five years ago, or one cursory glance at the search results for "slam poetry" on YouTube. Even the page/stage divide is a false binary—an enormous overlap exists between published poets and performance poets, and we can all learn from each other.

The takeaway here is that while there is a lot of not-so-great spoken word out there, the best stuff is some of the most breathtakingly dynamic and powerful art being made right now. Check out this list I've pulled together of 100+ poems (in video form) that I'd recommend. The best spoken word combines the rigorous word-craft of poetry with theater, music, dance, rhetoric, stand-up, storytelling and other arts, creating a hybrid form that is then presented directly to living, breathing audiences. The performative element doesn’t take away from the artistry—when it’s done right, it adds to it.

And you don’t have to like it. We could go back and forth forever arguing about the art itself, but one thing that isn’t up for debate is the fact that spoken word has an audience. It’s a diverse audience. It skews young. It’s the future of poetry. And that’s scary for some people, but progress always is.

Lots of further commentary and resources here

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Guante: A Visit From the PC Police (VIDEO)

New video! It's a new poem/PSA/collaboration with Linebreak Media about reframing the idea of "political correctness" to be less about censorship and more about choosing to not use needlessly hurtful language. Please share, re-post, blog, etc. if you like it.

Especially since this issue comes up every few months in the media, and pretty much every second of every day for people who pay attention, I'm hoping this piece can be a resource for people who are tired of saying/typing this kind of stuff over and over again.

Language matters.


The Oscars, Bad Jokes and Bully Culture

3 Points About Rape Jokes that People Seem to Be Ignoring

Responding to Common Arguments About Offensiveness

On Boycotting the B-Word a few extended thoughts on this piece over at Opine Season.

TRANSCRIPT (may not be perfect, but it's pretty close):

Monday, July 22, 2013

How to Completely Miss the Point in a Conversation About Racism

Originally published at Opine Season

“Telling [people of color] they’re obsessed with racism is like telling a drowning person they’re obsessed with swimming.” —Hari Kondabolu (hat tip to Donte Collins)

After a week of comments and conversations, I wanted to address the recurring points that some white people have brought up in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. Because it’s not just about Trayvon Martin; every time there’s a national conversation about race and racism, white people (yes, I’m generalizing; no, I’m not sorry) tend to have the same kinds of reactions.

Getting wildly, irrationally defensive even though it’s not about you:
My column from last week basically just says “if you’re white and upset about the verdict, here are some things you can do to confront racism in your own life.” That’s it.

But then come the comments: “It’s racist to say that white people are racist!” “Why do we have to make such a big deal out of this?” “I’m white and I paid to go to college so there’s no such thing as white privilege!” “Why do we have to be singled out?“ The people talking about racism are the real racists!” “We’re not all like that!” “I’m so offended!”

White people: “talking about racism” does not equal “attacking you personally.” We desperately need to stop being so insecure every time anyone brings up anything remotely related to race and racism. You don’t have to agree, but to immediately jump into “eyes-closed-and-screaming” mode speaks volumes about you and the kind of world in which you’d prefer to live.

Refusing to acknowledge the role that race plays in our lives
“It wasn’t about race.” That was the most consistent theme in the responses. Time and time again, when there is a racial incident in this country, people of color point to the giant racist elephant rampaging through the room and white people say “oh that’s probably just the wind.”

Is it possible that Zimmerman would have approached a white kid the same way he approached Trayvon Martin? Sure… it’s possible. But the lived experience of millions upon millions of people says that it’s also extremely naïve to believe that.

When people of color talk about racism, they’re not just making things up. There’s no Black Santa who delivers big bags of money to anyone who claims to have been discriminated against. Racial profiling, harassment and discrimination are daily realities for millions of people. To just dismiss that as “whining” or “playing the race card” is unbelievably arrogant.

“Refusing to talk about racism” doesn’t end racism. “Ending racism” ends racism. If your house is on fire, you don’t just ignore the flames away. Maybe a better metaphor is if your neighbors’ house is on fire, you don’t tell them to “stop making such a big deal out of it.” You don’t look the other direction and say “but are you sure it’s on fire?” You help, or you get the hell out of the way.

Focusing on the details and ignoring the big picture:
“Zimmerman was half-Peruvian!” “911 dispatchers don’t have the authority to give orders!” “Trayvon was big and really strong and got in trouble at school!” “Zimmerman had an African-American girlfriend once!” “Since Travyon was right-handed, and standing at x angle, and the moon was at y point in the sky, there’s no way he could have…”


I think the biggest misconception about the outrage around the Zimmerman trial is that people are mad about the verdict. To be fair, many are. But many more are mad because Travyon Martin happens every day in this country. It may not always end with a dramatic gun death, but young black and brown men are demonized, profiled, harassed, imprisoned and killed every day for being young black and brown men (and women too, let’s be honest).

The marches and rallies that have been happening recently aren’t just about Trayvon Martin. They’re about the culture that demonizes black and brown youth, assuming that they’re dangerous, threatening, and up-to-no-good. They’re about the lack of accountability and consequences in police brutality cases. They’re about disproportionate minority confinement. They’re about the selective application of the “Stand Your Ground” law. They’re about the gross over-representation of people of color in the criminal justice system. They’re about who is given the benefit of the doubt and who isn’t, time and time again. They’re about the continued de-valuing of black and brown life in this country.

Argue about the specific details of this specific case all you want, but nothing in the above paragraph is up for debate. That’s the big picture that we—especially those of us who identify as white—have to see, if we ever hope to transition from “having a conversation about racism” to “doing something about racism.”

I posted these as a comment on the previous column, but I can’t recommend them enough; absolutely must-read material:

Questlove at NY Magazine

Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic

Aura Bogado at Colorlines

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pre-Order the SIFU HOTMAN vinyl through Fifth Element, get the digital version instantly

I've had a wildly busy summer so far-- my article on white people and racial justice went viral, I wrote a series of articles on feminism and sexism that I'm really proud of, I got to be on live national TV, I'm coaching the MN Brave New Voices team, and a million other things... it's easy to forget that I'm an MC too. My new project, a collaboration with MC Dem Atlas and producer Rube (who also did the cover art above), will be available on vinyl and free digital download on August 13.

Pre-order the record, get the digital version instantly!
Yup. Everyone can download the digital version for free on August 13, but if you pre-order the vinyl, you can get all three tracks right away. This is a limited edition vinyl, and may very well be the only record I ever release, so scoop it up. Order now at Fifth Element!

SIFU HOTMAN is a hip hop collaboration between MCs Guante & Dem Atlas and producer Rube. Featuring funky, up-tempo beats perfect for the b-boys and b-girls paired with razor-sharp lyrics from two of the most singular voices in the Twin Cities hip hop scene, this three-song suite will be released on vinyl and digital download on August 13, 2013.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

An Open Letter to White People About Trayvon Martin

Originally published at Opine Season, the night after the Zimmerman verdict, where it maxed out our comment system... though the timestamp here is still July 2013, I'm actually re-posting this here a year later. Be sure to check out the addendum to this piece here.

In the next few days, there are going to be a lot of essays and op-eds attempting to make sense of, or grapple with, or process the Zimmerman verdict, from writers who are better than me. So I want to talk about this from a very specific angle.

This is an open letter to white people, especially to those white people who understand that something terrible has happened, and has been happening, and will continue to happen, but don’t know what to do.

Clearly, something needs to change. But not every problem has a clear-cut, run-out-the-door-and-do-something solution. If you’re angry, or sad, take a second to process. Think about where you fit into this injustice, how you benefit from it, how you’re hurt by it. If that involves prayers, or posting links on Twitter, or having hard conversations, or writing poems, do that. Process.

But it can’t end with “processing.”

If you’re someone who has avoided thinking about white privilege—the unearned advantages that white people benefit from because of how institutions are set up and how history has unfolded—now is a great time to unstick your head from the sand. If Trayvon Martin had been white, he’d still be alive. What better real-world example of white privilege is there? Grappling with how privilege plays out in our own lives is a vital first step to being able to understand what racism is.

But it can’t end with “thinking about our privilege.”

We also need to act on those thoughts, to cultivate an awareness that can permeate our lives and relationships. When people of color share personal stories about racism, our immediate response has to stop being “but I’m not like that.” Just listen. Don’t make someone else’s oppression about you and your feelings. When people of color are angry, we need to stop worrying about the “tone” of their arguments, or trying to derail the conversation with phrases like “it’s not just about race,” or contribute meaningless abstractions like “let’s start a revolution.” When we see unjust or discriminatory practices or attitudes in our workplaces, schools, families or neighborhoods, we need to step up and challenge them. We need to take risks. We need to do better.

But it can’t end with “striving to be a better individual.”

Times like this can feel so hopeless, but it’s important to remember that people are fighting back, and have been fighting back. Racism doesn’t end when you decide to not be racist. It ends when people come together to organize, to work to reshape how our society is put together.

Check out organizations who are doing racial justice work, community organizing trainings, work with youth, and more: the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, MN Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the Hope Community Center, TruArtSpeaks, Juxtaposition Arts, Justice for Terrance Franklin, Justice for Fong Lee, Communities United Against Police Brutality. There are certainly others (feel free to add more in the comments). Google stuff. Talk to people. Figure out where and how you can plug in.

As a white person, that can be hard. The leaders of any racial justice movement will be, and should be, the people who are most affected by the problem. But that doesn’t mean that white folks should just sit by and watch. Some of the organizations listed above may have ways for you to get involved; some might not. But there’s always something you can do. Organize a discussion group. Learn about good ally behavior. Challenge your Facebook friends. Challenge yourself. Join an organization. Infuse social justice principles into your workplace, or place of worship, or school, or neighborhood. Listen. Understand that Trayvon Martin’s murder was not an isolated incident; start seeing the racism all around you, and start doing something about it.

Above all, stay engaged. As white people, we have the option of not caring. Many don’t.

Monday, July 08, 2013

"This is the Opposite of a Suicide Note" Remix (Official Video)

One year ago, me and producer Graham O'Brien (No Bird Sing, Junkyard Empire, a million other bands) released this remix as a free download. Last month, I was given the opportunity to make a video for it, via Adam J. Dunn's "Lights and a Backdrop" web series. Adam is one of the most talented, hardest-working people in the Twin Cities hip hop scene, and everything he's done has been gold. This series is a beautiful idea, and you can find the whole thing here.

You can still download this song for FREE via my SoundCloud page here:

This is a song I wrote a while back. It's a pretty personal song, and touches on some familiar subject matter for me-- the idea that you don't have to be happy all the time to be a good person; it's okay to be angry. We can use these negative emotions as tools to build something positive.

Aside from the subject matter, though, the real trick here was structure. I wanted to create a song that was all verse, no hook, but that didn't get boring. So some of that is in the beat, obviously-- the way it builds and breaks down and builds again-- and some of it is in the delivery and in the writing itself. I have other tracks like that-- "Winter is Coming" and "Lightning," and it's an approach that I like because it kind of bridges the gap between rap and spoken-word-- it's definitely rapping (AABB and all that), but it uses the slam poem's three-minute narrative arch instead of the standard rap song's 16/8/16/8 verse/chorus structure.

This is one of my favorite songs that I've written, and I'm very grateful to Graham for making such a banger, and Adam for shooting such a cool video. If you like it, please share, re-post, all that. Thanks!

Sunday, July 07, 2013

When You Hate that You Love a Piece of Art or Pop Culture

Originally published at Opine Season

The first rap group I really fell in love with was Goodie Mob. If you only know Cee-lo as a reality TV star, or as the singer in Gnarls Barkley, it’s important to understand that Cee-lo, as a member of Goodie Mob, was one of the best MCs ever. I learned how to rap by listening to Cee-lo (not to mention the very underrated Big Gipp), and the group’s first two albums are southern hip hop classics.

It was not until I was years out of high school that I noticed a couple of Goodie Mob lines (not from Cee-lo, but from group member Khujo) that were explicitly, inarguably, violently homophobic. Maybe I was just too young and ignorant to understand them before, but I suddenly had to see the group in a very different light.

I know I’m not alone in this. Maybe you grew up watching Buffy, and then suddenly noticed how few fleshed-out characters of color there are in Joss Whedon’s work. Maybe you really like Game of Thrones, but feel uncomfortable with some of the weird gender and race stuff in the series. Maybe you think Robin Thicke’s new song is the song of the year, but also think that the video is incredibly problematic. How do we reconcile all this stuff?

First things first: I don’t claim to have any answers. If you do, please share them in the comments. But here are a few points I try to keep in mind when grappling with these issues:

We can and should be critical of the things that we love
Being a fan of something isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. It’s not “I like this, so I’m going to turn my brain off,” or “this is offensive so it’s automatically terrible.” Culture is more complex than that. We like what we like. As individuals, however, we should be able to develop a critical eye and understand how even some of the art that we love has problematic elements. We should be able to have conversations about it without getting defensive. We should be able to make connections between the pop culture we consume and the society in which we live.

…at the same time, there has to be a line
It’s easy to take that last point and use it as a rationalization to never be truly critical of anything, like “yeah this neo-Nazi folk music is terrible, but it has such pretty melodies!” It’s okay– and healthy– to draw lines, to choose not to be a part of something. The common argument of “if you don’t like it, don’t listen to it” is usually a cop-out response meant to shut down debate, but it can also be a survival mechanism. Drawing “the line” is going to be an ongoing struggle for everyone, but it’s good to remember that if something is rubbing you the wrong way, there are millions upon millions of other (songs/books/shows/movies) out there to be experiencing.

There’s a difference between what we enjoy and what we promote/support
For example, you can listen to Eminem without buying any of his music, posting about him on social media or telling anyone about how much you like him. You don’t have to put money in his– or his label’s– pockets. We all probably have a DVD or an album in our collection that doesn’t exactly line up with the social justice values and principles we believe in. That doesn’t make you a hypocrite. That doesn’t make you a bad person. The important thing is strive to understand your feelings, continue navigating the aforementioned “line,” and keep fighting for those values and principles in your everyday life. Again, don’t shut your brain off; keep trying to cultivate awareness and action.

…at the same time, everything we ingest has an impact
Just something to keep in mind: whether it affects us at a conscious, rational level or a deeper level, art is like food. If you ingest too much crap, it’s going to have negative consequences, one way or another.

Cultivating awareness and a critical eye/ear doesn’t ruin art; it makes it better
I can’t go to movies on a whim any more. The sexism, the racism, the homophobia, not to mention the general wackness of 90% of everything Hollywood releases just doesn’t appeal to me. But it also makes the good movies, when they come along, that much more enjoyable. When you finally find a piece of art that speaks to you as art, but also isn’t brought down by stereotypical characters, or offensive ideas, or lack of representation– that’s a beautiful feeling. The same is true for TV, books, poetry, music and other forms of culture and communication.

Do I still listen to Goodie Mob sometimes? Sure. But it’s a complex experience. It’s not just “this song is good,” it’s an ongoing internal conversation about the roots of oppression, about the responsibilities of an artist, about my own life, privileges and experiences and how they line up with the ideas being expressed in the songs. It’s not as simple as just sitting back and vibing out to some music, but that’s okay. Pop culture isn’t just escapism; it’s our mythology, our hive mind’s currents and undercurrents. A little active listening is healthy. It can even be fun.

But it’s definitely an ongoing struggle. What goes through your head when you engage with art or culture that has problematic elements?