Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Beyond ‘Slacktivism’: Reframing Social Media as Independent Media

Originally published at Opine Season

I write a lot about social justice issues—identity, power, privilege, the power of language, etc. A common criticism of these pieces is that they don’t really change anyone’s minds. People who think that gay people cause earthquakes, or that racism isn’t a real problem any more, or that all poor people choose to be poor—they’re just not interested in being challenged. They believe what they want for their own reasons and it’s pointless to argue with them.

Frankly, I agree. Nothing I write is ever going to convince Rush Limbaugh to become a force for progressive ideals. But that’s not why I write.

If me and Rush agree on anything, it’s that there’s a culture war going on. We just happen to be on opposite sides. And as is true in any war, there are allies, enemies, and everyone else—the people caught in the middle, the ones who haven’t yet picked a side, the ones who believe in one side or the other but don’t actively support either.

Our work, as progressives, should be less about convincing conservatives to “see the light” as it should be reaching out to these people in the middle—some of whom might be our cousins, old high school classmates, co-workers or others; in other words, our Facebook friends.

Let’s reframe social media as something more than “letting people know what you had for lunch.” Social media is independent media. It’s art. It’s Adrian Veidt sitting in front of 100 TVs at once. It’s power. So much of the commentary around social media and social change has focused on the short-term (Twitter can help organize direct actions) and the medium-term (all these slacktivists are posting links to articles but not getting involved); but it’s the long-term impact that has the most potential.

One of the first things you learn as an artist is that promotion is about long-term thinking. You hand someone a flyer with your name on it, they glance at it and throw it away. A week later, they see your name on a website. Another week later, someone else hands them another flyer with your name on it. A month later, they hear you on the radio, and all of these small moments coalesce into “I may have to check out this person’s music.” There’s no magical eureka moment—just a steady push.

Progressive change is the same way. It’s a process. It’s a slog. Every little push helps. We need activists and politicians working to create sustainable, institutional change, but we also need everyone using their voices to help build the foundation for that change.

Of course, no amount of social media presence can replace real organizing. But it’s not an either/or. Let’s not discount the impact that social media can have in allowing all of us to have a hand in shaping the larger conversation. As individuals, we can be more active and intentional about using Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram and our blogs to help create the world we want. As organizations, we can embrace not just the platforms themselves, but the new, dynamic culture that has arisen alongside the sites and tools.

And in the same way that social media is independent media, so is theater, and hip hop, and blogging, and poetry, and zines, and just starting up conversations with your friends. There are a million ways—especially today—to stand up for your values and beliefs, to nudge the larger conversation in one direction or the other. No individual action like this, by itself, is going to change anything, sure; but no large-scale cultural, social or political change is going to come without these individual actions, either. Fortunately, we can do both.

Monday, April 29, 2013


You know, it's a shame that one of my most universal poems has one of the most specific titles. I hope that if you're a poet, visual artist, novelist, singer, dancer, or even someone who doesn't identify as an artist, you'll still check this out. Hip hop here is the lens, but it's not the heart of what this poem is trying to get at.

Anyway, this is a newer draft of this poem, with a much better video courtesy of Patrick Pegg (with an assist from the MN State Arts Board). Kind of the non-rhyming companion piece to this song. This is my reminder to myself that both reach and impact are important, but that they're not the same thing. A few related links:

1. There are a lot of fantastic indie-rappers in the Twin Cities. Here's a "primer" I wrote for people who don't know about our scene. It doesn't cover EVERYTHING, but it's a good place to start.

2. For something more concrete, here's a piece I wrote called "Six Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Getting Started as an Artist."

3. If you like this, be sure to check out all my other spoken-word videos at this link.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

New releases from Dem Atlas, PCP, See More Perspective, Kaoz and Khary Jackson

I know a lot of talented people. Here are few of them. Most of this stuff is free. Download it and make a "new music" playlist that will last you a couple hours. I love doing that.


Everyone who's seen Dem Atlas perform knows that he's something special. The next project I release will actually be a short collaborative EP with him (more on that soon). The kid is just overflowing with talent and personality, and you can catch a lot of that here on his debut EP. The Pharcyde comparisons are easy, but only because they're pretty accurate. So imagine if the Pharcyde came up in the Twin Cities hip hop scene-- that's how I hear this stuff, and that's an enormous compliment. Dem Atlas on Facebook.


Just about everyone I know these days has a "slash." Rapper/producer. Poet/dancer. Singer/painter. But PCP has lots of slashes, and does all of them well. If you frequent this site, you may know him as the guy who shot and edited about half of my spoken-word videos, as well as the "To Young Leaders" video. He's also a long-time youth worker and educator. He's also a producer, MC and singer. His debut LP is coming soon, and this EP is a hell of a compelling preview. It's a raw, visceral collection of songs that showcase a vocal approach reminiscent of Eyedea and Kristoff Krane over some gorgeously unique, live instrument-driven production. PCP on Facebook.


See More is halfway through his "seasonal" EPs, having released "Fall Forward" and "Brain Freeze" already, with "Food for Thaw" coming soon. I've BEEN saying that he's one of the freshest voices in the scene, with a unique, playful style, boom-bap sensibilities and an overall vibe of positivity and community, and these EPs (produced by Serebellum One) are a great place to start if you're late to the party. See More will also be releasing his first spoken-word project, "THE COSMOS ACCORDING TO YOUR CLOSED EYES," in September. See More Perspective on Facebook.


Kaoz has been a staple of our Hip Hop Against Homophobia shows for the past few years, and has been a tireless artist, advocate, activist and educator. While that description might make you think he's a joyless "conscious" rap scold (like me, haha), he's definitely not. This is an album (or two albums, really) about sex, identity and much more, and it's fun, funny and powerful. Kaoz is never afraid to keep it real. You can get volume one and volume two here. Kaoz on Facebook.

Khary is a very talented poet and spoken-word artist. I think the thing that separates him from the pack, however, is his ambition. He takes risks. He does very difficult things artistically but makes them look easy. I haven't read his book yet, but I've known him and his work for years now and I'm SURE this is brilliant stuff. You can get it through Write Bloody Publishing. And here's a video of him in action.

There's always more great stuff being released. Sorry if I missed you; these five are just people I know personally. Feel free to leave a comment if you got something people should check out.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

New Song: The Fourth Wall (Katrah-Quey Remix) w/ Lydia Liza of Bomba de Luz

It's a FREE download, by the way.

I know I haven't released much music since "You Better Weaponize." A ton of essays, poems and other writings, but no new songs. Well, I've been taking the time between projects to record some remixes, re-imaginings, new songs and just fun random songs, especially ones featuring artists I haven't had a chance to work with yet. This one is the first of a few, and features two very talented artists:

KATRAH-QUEY is a producer I've been listening to for years, even before I moved to Minneapolis. He's prolific as hell, and is a real student of the art. Everything I've heard from him has been smooth and beautifully-crafted. You can find more of his work on Soundcloud, and his latest project is the "Woven in the Fabric" EP that features Toki Wright, Kanser and more.

LYDIA LIZA is the lead singer of Bomba de Luz, one of the best bands in the Twin Cities. If you haven't heard their new song "Howl at that Moon" yet, drop what you're doing and listen to it. A cool video of the same track here.

The track was recorded and mixed by Graham O'Brien at Bellows in St. Paul.

If you like it, download it for free. And please share it-- Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, all that. Thanks!

Monday, April 15, 2013

Why Representative Event Lineups Matter

Originally published at Opine Season

I swear, I didn’t want to write about the recently announced Rock the Garden lineup. But between my recent piece on the need for local media to reflect the diversity of the community, Matt Peiken’s somewhat more direct piece on why the Current is boring, and a million other blog posts, article comments and tweets, I think we’re having an important conversation right now. RtG is just another opportunity to keep it going.

Of course, this isn’t just about Rock the Garden. It’s also about when rap shows have a dozen acts on the bill and they’re all guys, when a literary reading or spoken-word show is all-white, when any multi-act, local music-centered, pat-ourselves-on-the-back type show in the Mainroom has no artists of color, when a rally has 10 speakers who are all men, when a panel discussion addressing an issue that affects the whole community only features voices from one segment of that community, when LGBTQ-identified performers so often have to organize their own, separate events because they’re not included in “mainstream” shows… the list goes on.

And sure, as someone who organizes and promotes events, I know how much work it is. I know you don’t always get your first choices for the lineup, and that you have to balance the lineup you want with the lineup that is available with the lineup that will sell tickets.

But all of that is an acknowledgement of the reality of throwing events, not an excuse.

This isn’t a finger-shaking attack on anyone who organizes shows. This isn’t a call for quotas or tokenism. These are just a few thoughts on how putting together lineups that are more representative of your community isn’t just some abstractly “good” thing to do– it makes business sense too.

People notice, and people talk
Sure, a lot of people don’t; you could throw a show here featuring Mac Lethal, Macklemore and Mac Miller and it would sell out in five minutes. But quite a few people do pay attention to this kind of thing. And they’re the kind of people who, in the long run, have more influence on shaping scenes and building arts communities. You can make a quick buck pandering to the people who don’t care, but you can bet that other people are watching and taking note. In terms of long-term strategy, it’s going to hurt you.

Non-representative bills lead to non-representative audiences
I don’t expect promoters and event organizers to be altruistic. So I’ll put it this way– when you’re excluding people from your shows, you’re excluding dollars from your wallet. If every artist in town is competing for the money and attention of the same group of 1000 white, 20-30-something, show-going scenesters, that’s not sustainable. If your political rally is still drawing the “usual suspects” who came to similar rallies 20 years ago, that’s not sustainable. There are a ton of other markets in the Twin Cities, and putting together more diverse lineups can be the first step in reaching out to those other markets.

Non-representative bills adds to the homogenization of local art
I guess this is the big one. Art thrives around conflict, competition and collaboration. When a scene is segregated, around any lines of identity, those things don’t happen as much, and the art suffers. Audiences get comfortable. Artists get lazy.

I’m not saying that every single three-band bill at the Nomad or Entry should feature a woman and a person of color or it’s automatically sexist/racist. I’m not saying that every single rock show has to include a hip hop artist. I’m not saying that we should tokenize women or need to have a specific ratio of brown faces to white faces at every festival. All of that is ridiculous.

I’m saying that we can do better. If we strive to have an authentic relationship with our city’s scene(s), putting together representative bills (especially for “big” events like Rock the Garden, Soundset, various media institutions’ birthdays, campus kickoff events, other festivals, etc.) isn’t that difficult. It will actually happen organically. But the first step is giving a shit, and the second step is moving outside your comfort zone.

If you don’t do it, someone else will
Finally, I think it’s important to remember that while it’s good to try to hold people accountable, we don’t have to beg any promoter, artist or media outlet to do better—we can do it ourselves. The last big show I organized featured a rap act, a singer and a dance crew, and it was beautiful. Events like the Hip Hop Harambee, Take Action MN’s “Vote No2” concert, and others have been inspiring examples. Let’s learn from one another, and push one another.

Is this the biggest issue facing our community? Of course not. But the lack of diversity at big events is definitely a symptom of a larger issue facing the Twin Cities. If we care about that, it’s important to remember that change happens on multiple fronts, through multiple means, and even the smallest steps matter.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Cherry Spoon Bridge to Nowhere: on the Iconography of the Twin Cities

Originally published at Opine Season

I’m not from the Twin Cities originally, but I’ve lived in Minneapolis for five years. As an outsider/insider, one thing I’ve noticed is the gulf between the reality I’ve experienced here and the way that the Twin Cities (and Minnesota, for that matter) are presented in media.

Is there a shared Twin Cities identity? Maybe. But that identity is much more complex than what you’re likely to find in one of the many “Best of the Twin Cities” lists, or “that’s so Minnesotan” features, or any article, music festival, TV news segment, event, commercial, or other piece of media that seeks (whether explicitly or implicitly) to represent “the community.”

For example, when the City Pages ran a feature on why Minnesota is the best state, it pointed to things like the Hold Steady, Brock Lesnar, Target, ski trails, hipsters, the Coen brothers, the Walker, the Mall of America, and the fact that “everyone has a cabin on the lake.” When the MN State Fair has an area called “Heritage Square,” it features Americana, polka, old-time and bluegrass music. Browse the MPLS.St.Paul Magazine website and tell me whose faces you see. Whose stories are being told?

To be clear, I’m not saying that any of these symbols are bad. I like going to the State Fair. I like eating tater tot hotdish. I appreciate what The Current has accomplished. I’m just saying that by focusing so much on these symbols, we’re presenting an incomplete picture. We’re silencing a lot of voices. And as people who work in media, people who organize events, or just people who care about our community—we have a responsibility to do better.

Because the Twin Cities I know is a large, vibrant, diverse, complex, challenging, beautiful place. The symbols we so often encounter when talking about the Twin Cities—the sports teams, the idea of Minnesota Nice, the Cherry Spoon Bridge, “A Prairie Home Companion,” etc.—these are all fine. But they’re not everything. They do not represent me, or most of my friends, or many of the people in my neighborhood.

Of course, people who work in media may say “we’re just giving our audience what they want.” Event organizers may say “we’re just serving the people who happen to show up.”

But your audience is all white for a reason. Your board of directors is all men for a reason. Working class people don’t attend meetings for your organization for a reason. Young people don’t read your publication for a reason. None of this “just happens.”

And this is bigger than media. When whole communities are ignored, that plays out at a policy level too. If we have an incomplete view of our city or cities, that’s going to impact how we vote, how we view our neighbors and how we build for the future.

So what can we do? In a media context, it takes intentional promotion, a long-term view of audience development, creating authentic relationships in the community, and much more. I don’t have all the answers, but two organizations I’d like to point to are the Main Street Project and Community Action Against Racism. Both organizations’ work around media justice has been—and continues to be—inspiring. Our community’s diversity is a strength, and media has a responsibility to reflect that.

Finally, this is a piece I wrote about this issue after a lot of conversations and reflection. It may be a little more… blunt than this essay, but I hope it can at least spark some more dialogue:

Monday, April 01, 2013

Outrage is Easy: on Rick Ross, Rape and Responsibility

Originally published at Opine Season

When I teach classes on poetry, one of the tools we talk about is the “so what?” test. The most powerful art, at least for me, strives to answer that question. It doesn’t just say “war is bad;” it says “war is bad and here’s what we can do about it.” It doesn’t just present a tragedy or outrage for us to gawk at; it puts it in context and allows us to learn something or understand it in a new way. The best art educates, inspires, or calls us to action—sometimes all three.

I was reminded of the “so what?” test when I heard about hip hop artist Rick Ross casually dropping a few bars about raping a woman on a new song: “Put molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it / I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.”

The “so what” in this case doesn’t refer to the lyrics themselves; they’re awful, and anyone denying that he’s talking about rape here (as Ross himself did), is delusional. The “so what” refers to what we do with this information. How can this be a teaching moment? How can this be something more than “hey, some rapper said something f’ed up?”

A few voices out there have some great thoughts. Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony writes:

What’s so scary about Ross’ line is that this is something that a good number of men and boys actually do. Maybe a rap lyric won’t inspire an impressionable young dude to go and try to flip a couple keys, but normalizing this sort of rape? I see it. I see it and it scares me…

…If there is any takeaway from this whole miserable mess, I hope that there are some men and women who will soon understand that sex sans consent is rape—no matter how many pills the victim pops on a regular basis, no matter how many times she’s had sex with her rapist or anyone else in the past. It sounds awfully simple, but how much evidence do we need to see that for many folks, the culture of rape is readily accepted and sustained?

Hip hop artist and self-proclaimed “whiteboy blogger” Adam Levin analyzes his own positive review of a Rick Ross album and breaks down the mental gymnastics that many of us do to excuse our favorite artists even when we know they’re creating work that hurts people:

Even if what I said helped Ross move only one album, it aided in validating what he does with his music, and contributed to the idea that he could get away with it. I can’t claim that I was fooled by anything–I’m not naive, I KNEW his music was misogynist, I KNEW he said homophobic shit on the record, and I still gave it a really good score. This is a problem that a lot of us, as straight white male music critics, have to acknowledge—that ultimately, what we overlook in our positive reviews of harmful music, is what we’re cosigning.

I really appreciate how both pieces go beyond the easy critique. Because it’s easy to just criticize Rick Ross. Necessary, sure, but easy. If we really care about dismantling rape culture, we have to use this controversy as a gateway to talk about the larger issue—and do something about it. Our racist, classist society already looks down on Rick Ross; criticizing him is important, but can only move the conversation so far. Let’s make connections—how do Ross’ lyrics relate to what Todd Akin said, or what happened in Steubenville, or legislation aimed at chipping away at survivors’ rights, or to our own daily practices?

Because another thing we talk about in poetry classes is how the most powerful work often turns the magnifying glass on the self. It’s one thing to write a poem about racism, for example; it’s something else to write a poem that explores your own complicity with a racist system. With this Rick Ross controversy, I think the question has to evolve from “how does what he said make me feel?” to “in what ways am I supporting rape culture too?”

Because even the most progressive, feminist-minded folks among us can unknowingly support this system—through our dollars (buying products that use rape imagery in their ads, supporting an artist who minimizes rape, etc.), through our words (telling rape jokes, blaming the victim, etc.), and through our silence (refusing to challenge the status quo, shutting down when this topic comes up, etc.). And we can all—myself definitely included—do better.

Related: How Men Can Take an Active Role in Disrupting and Dismantling Rape Culture