Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Updates: Opine Season, youth poetry slam Finals, new music news, and a memory

Just a few updates:

1. Why Is Guante So Opinionated?
I've been writing a weekly column at the new online op-ed co-op OPINE SEASON for the past three weeks. Other writers include Kao Kalia Yang, Ricardo Levins Morales, Chaun Webster, Lolla Mohammed Nur and more, an inspired and inspiring alliance of talent. The site was founded by Matt Peiken and we've had an incredible first few weeks of life-- both in terms of traffic and quality of material. Here's a piece on us from the City Pages too.

Check it out. If you missed my first pieces, they were "The Oscars, Bad Jokes and Bully Culture," "On Macklemore, Privilege, and Moving the Conversation Forward," and "How Men Can Take an Active Role in Dismantling Rape Culture." If you like something, please share it. If you don't, leave a comment.

2. Youth Poetry Slam FINALS on March 29
Tish Jones has been putting in tons of work getting this new youth poetry slam series running, and I've been helping out however I can. We've already seen four great prelim slams, two tough semis, and now we're left with the top 12 teen poets from around MN. They'll be sharing their passion, talent and style on stage at In the Heart of the Beast Theater in MPLS on March 29; it should be a great show. Here's the Facebook event page with more details. Come support some of the most outspoken young people in the area. Tish also runs one of the best open mics in town, every Thursday at 6pm at Golden Thyme Cafe.

3. A bunch of great shows, more soon
Big thanks to UW-La Crosse, UW-River Falls, the University of St. Thomas, Central High School and the other recent places I've performed in the past couple weeks. I'll take that over SXSW any time, haha. Upcoming gigs include St. Olaf College, CSB/SJU, a two-night gig in Appleton and more; details for all TBA soon. If you want to bring me to your college, maybe for the Fall, check out my updated booking page.

4. New music coming soon
In the past month or so, I've recorded a few guest verses, finished up a very special project that features vocals from me and Dem Atlas over production from the Rube (it's unlike anything I've ever released, and we'll make it public soon), and started working on another special project. I also have songs with Katrah-Quey and Lydia Hoglund from Bomba de Luz just about ready to be released. "You Better Weaponize" is still my proudest achievement so far, and we'll be releasing more videos throughout the year to keep pushing it. THANKS to everyone who continues to listen.

5. In remembrance
Finally, I don't talk much about my personal life here, so I hope this isn't odd that it's just the last point on a bullet point list, because it's obviously the most important one for me. I just wanted to share my grandmother's obituary. Such a beautiful life. You will be missed and remembered.

Monday, March 18, 2013

How Men Can Take an Active Role in Dismantling Rape Culture

One of the happy hazards of writing weekly op-eds is that sometimes, someone says exactly what you wanted to say, better than you could have said it. There’s been a lot of quality writing about the importance of dismantling rape culture lately, from Jessica Valenti at the Nation, Elizabeth Plank at PolicyMic, Samhita Mukhopadhyay at Feministing, and others.

But this piece from Zerlina Maxwell at Ebony called “5 Ways We Can Teach Men Not to Rape” is the kind of stop-what-you’re-doing-right-now-and-read-this essay that deserves to be linked-to and reposted as much as possible. Go ahead and read it if you haven’t already—I’ll wait here (UPDATE: yet another brilliant piece from Zerlina Maxwell here).

If I were going to add anything to this conversation, it’d be about the specific responsibilities that men have to fight against, disrupt, and ultimately dismantle rape culture. While Maxwell’s piece focuses on things that we as a society have to do, there are some specific things that men can do to take part in this struggle.

Starting with the self: learning more
If this is a new topic for you, do some research. This isn’t an “Intro to Rape Culture” piece, but those kinds of things definitely exist. Here’s a good one called “Rape Culture 101,” courtesy of Melissa McEwan at Shakesville. Another good one is “Ten Things to End Rape Culture” at the Nation. There are more, including all the links above.

Bringing the conversation into traditionally male-dominated spaces
I talk about rape culture a lot because I’m always around people—especially women—for whom social justice education is a passion or career. But there are a lot of spaces where those voices are absent, spaces that are traditionally considered “boy’s clubs.” Sometimes, a critical voice in a space like that—whether a sports team, a role-playing game guild, a male-dominated class or workplace—can be incredibly powerful. “The work” can’t be all women teaching men, and it can’t be all social justice educators doing workshops—we all have a role to play in spreading these ideas.

Using powerful platforms to create change
Part of male privilege is that, as men, we expect people to listen to what we have to say, and that’s no surprise—we’re socialized to take men’s voices seriously, to hear authority in them. And as much of a problem as that is, I can’t help but consider a few possibilities. An obvious start is for fathers to talk to their sons about consent, but there’s more. Think of the power that a high school football coach has to talk about violence against women. Think of how this kind of message sounds coming from an educator whose primary field has nothing to do with social justice. Think of how far consent culture can spread when a popular male artist, or blogger, or politician starts talking about it. And you don’t have to be a celebrity or leader to be powerful—anyone with a Twitter account or Facebook page can push the conversation forward.

Related to the last point, men can speak out to other men. For example, when a friend posts a video of a comedian making a rape joke on Facebook, your posting about why you don’t think it’s funny sounds different from a female friend speaking out against it. Women are more likely to get tagged as “angry feminists” or whatever BS, so men can also step up and be pro-active in situations like this. I definitely don’t mean to imply that women’s voices don’t matter or can’t be powerful; I just think we all need to step up; disrupting harmful behavior, language or ideas is everyone’s responsibility. Check out the Green Dot project for more.

Some colleges, high schools and communities have organizations dedicated to dismantling rape culture. Check out groups like Men Can Stop Rape or PAVE. Check out the Aurora Center at the University of Minnesota. Maybe you can start an organization where one doesn’t already exist. Maybe it starts with something as simple as a weekly or monthly discussion group for men. There are many possibilities.

Take risks
Some of this stuff is really easy. Some of it isn’t. I certainly haven’t always been perfect when it comes to taking on rape culture. I’ve been a bystander. It takes work. It takes cultivating awareness. But it can be done. As a final note, I’ll share this poem I wrote for an event that the Aurora Center organized. Art can be one way to start a conversation, but there are many others; I hope we can all keep talking about—and building—a better world. Feel free to leave any other related articles or resources in the comments.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Preemptively Responding to Comments on My Nonexistent Op-Ed About Macklemore

Originally published at Opine Season

It’s easy to write about Macklemore. A straight, white, earnest, indie hip hop artist dominating the pop charts, performing on SNL, and being touted as the “next big thing” while rapping about thrift shopping and LGBTQ rights—as a cultural commentator, you couldn’t ask for much more to analyze.

And much has been written about Macklemore lately, from Hel Gebreamlak at Racialicious calling out his multiple privileges, to Rich Juzwiak at Gawker calling Hel Gebreamlak the “self-appointed privilege police,” to a wide range of commentary, sometimes fawning, sometimes scathing, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes bizarre.

As a change of pace, I’ve decided to not even write anything about Macklemore and just get right down to responding to the comments that would exist had I decided to write about him. The internet is nothing if not predictable, after all.

“You’re just a hater and Macklemore earned all of his success.”
Nope. Privilege matters. And when we talk about privilege, that doesn’t mean that Macklemore isn’t talented, or that he didn’t work hard. It’s not as though everyone who benefits from privilege (whether race, gender, sexual orientation, class, ability or any other form) just automatically has a perfect life. Having privilege just means that you get certain advantages; in indie hip hop, maybe that’s an easier connection with the majority-white CD-buying public, or more of a willingness for white college radio DJs to play your songs because they relate to your story, or having an easier time booking shows at certain venues because promoters are wary of the stereotypes tied to black rap acts.

Whatever it looks like, denying that Macklemore’s indie success is tied to his whiteness, male-ness and straight-ness is just naïve. We can’t move the conversation around oppression forward in this country until we acknowledge that privilege exists and that it matters. Hell, Macklemore himself acknowledges it.

“Macklemore is white so he shouldn’t be rapping.”
At this point, arguing about whether white people should or shouldn’t be rapping is a purely intellectual exercise. White people rap, and a better question might be “what is the responsibility of people of privilege existing in a culture that does not belong to them?” Let’s talk about what real ally-ship looks like. Let’s hold privileged artists accountable when it comes to respecting the history of the culture and giving back to their communities. Even better, let’s use this example as a way to examine how privilege functions in all of our lives. Getting caught up in what one celebrity is or isn’t doing can distance oneself from the issue. Finally, let’s continue to support and promote artists of color, particularly in scenes like the Twin Cities where white kids rapping is less of a novelty and more the norm.

“Macklemore is a talentless hack and if you like him you don’t know anything about rap.”
Look. I’m not a huge fan. I respect “Same Love,” and I’ve liked some of his work in the past, but in general, I don’t like his voice. I don’t like the way he moves on stage. But I’m also an MC. And when I hear people say that Macklemore isn’t a talented songwriter, or a capable bar-for-bar MC, I have to shake my head a little. Sure, he’s not Kendrick Lamar, but he’s got his own style and he’s paid his dues. I know a lot of hip hop heads who don’t care for his music, but I don’t know if any one of them would say that he’s not good at what he does.

I only mention all of this because I’ve seen too much critical commentary regarding Macklemore that’s not coming from a place of authentic cultural knowledge. Academics who read Jeff Chang’s “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop” once, social justice activists who haven’t listened to rap since “Blackstar,” hipsters acutely aware that earnest white rappers aren’t en vogue right now—this motley alliance of voices is very good at analyzing how privilege has played into Macklemore’s success (which is indeed an important topic to discuss). They’re not so good, however, at placing Macklemore’s success—privilege and all—into context, into hip hop as a lived reality as opposed to a sociology paper.

“I’m boycotting Macklemore until LGBTQ-identified artists get recognized.”
This one makes sense. Indeed, a common question regarding Macklemore: “is it fair that a straight artist is getting so much attention for speaking out on LGBTQ issues when artists who identify as LGTBQ are ignored?” Well, no. Of course it’s not fair. But rather than calling for Macklemore’s hip hop letter of resignation, or attacking an artist for speaking out on an issue that he clearly cares about, I think a better question might be “how can we support LGBTQ artists, particularly LGBTQ artists of color?” Let’s buy their music, first of all. Let’s go to their shows. Let’s post links to their work on our blogs and social media platforms.

Macklemore is famous because of his privilege, but he’s not famous just because of his privilege; he’s put in work and developed a fan base. If there are other artists out there whom you think are more deserving of praise, help spread the word about them; these days, that’s how artists “get on:” people power. Here are a few of my favorites, all from right here in the Twin Cities: Kaoz, Heidi Barton Stink, Hieu Minh Nguyen and Tish Jones. There are many more.

“Just shut up about Macklemore already.”
Amen. The only reason I’m writing this is because I think he’s a useful case study to examine the intersections between identity, hip hop, and internet culture that affect us all. But Macklemore can’t be the end of the conversation. Let’s keep challenging our friends, families and ourselves to acknowledge the reality of privilege—and the complexity of hip hop.

Monday, March 04, 2013

The Oscars, Bad Jokes and Bully Culture

Whenever the media catches someone making an offensive joke, saying something stupid, or doing something insensitive (all three of which were on display at the recent Academy Awards), the same questions get asked, over and over again:

“Was that really offensive, or is everyone just overreacting? Are we too sensitive?”

“Isn’t it the job of artists and comedians to push buttons and shake things up?”

“It was just a joke. Why are people so caught up on this little thing, when there are real problems out there?”

These are the wrong questions, and it’s time we stopped asking them. Here are three better ones:

Who’s making the joke, who’s laughing, and who’s being laughed at?
When the Onion calls 9 year-old Quvenzhané Wallis a c***, I know they don’t really mean it. But I also know that the “joke” taps into a long, painful history of young women of color being dehumanized, devalued and abused. The “humor” is entirely contingent on people either not knowing or not caring about that.

And this isn’t about free speech. Everyone is free to say whatever they want. This is about the choices we have as both creators and consumers of culture. The battle here is not pro-censorship vs. anti-censorship, or the uptight PC police vs. the badass artistic rebels; it’s “insensitive bullies saying hurtful things about historically and institutionally oppressed people for cheap shock value” vs. “people with standards.” Which side are you on?

What is the larger point being made with the joke/statement? Is there one?
If you absolutely have to offend someone in order to make some grand philosophical statement about the nature of human existence, fine. But when Lisa Lampanelli uses the n-word to refer to her friend Lena Dunham, or when Daniel Tosh laughs about the idea of a woman in his audience being raped, or when Eminem raps about murdering gay people, or when a NYC assemblyman (or St. Paul police officer, for that matter) wears blackface makeup—what’s the reason?

999 times out of a thousand, there isn’t one. Even when it’s not overtly malicious, it’s a tired joke. It’s a lazy attempt to come off as edgy when you’re not talented enough to actually say something edgy. It’s the unholy union of the willfully ignorant and the gleefully privileged, and it adds nothing new or interesting to the larger conversation.

What is the relationship between these so-called “little things” and the “real problems” of the world?
Every time a rapper says the word “bitch,” even if they’re not using it in an explicitly misogynistic way; every time a college student dresses up in a Halloween costume that is a caricature of someone else’s culture; every time some hipster says something racist to prove how “beyond race” they are; every time you post a Facebook status talking about how a particularly tough video game is “raping” you—none of these things alone represent the end of the world. It’s about the cumulative effect.

Language impacts thought; thought impacts action. And when our language is so casually cruel, when it normalizes what should be offensive, when it sacrifices empathy and critical thought for the cheap sugar rush of breaking taboos or getting a chuckle out of your audience—that affects the real world. That hurts people. That is the bullshit that fertilizes the ground from which oppression, inequality, bigotry, and hate grow.

Imagine you’re in high school. Every day, you witness a classmate subjected to a hundred “little things” from other students: a light shove in the hallway, a name-called in the lunchroom, hateful graffiti on a locker, taunting over Facebook, spitballs in the back of the head, etc. Any of those things by themselves might be manageable. But all of them, together, day after day after day—they add up.

And sure, you could tell the student to “get over himself” and “stop being so sensitive.” Or you could stand with him, as an ally, and refuse to be yet another bully. The choice is yours.