Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017 Wrap-Up Post: Songs, Poems, Videos, and Writing You May Have Missed

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

1. My TEDx Talk:

Read more about this here.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Ongoing Thread: A More In-Depth Look at a Few Poems/Videos

A few months ago, Button Poetry asked if I might be interested in doing some more in-depth write-ups of a handful of poems going up on their channel. It felt like a good opportunity to shine a spotlight on some other artists, as well as share some basic critical analysis tools with Button's (considerable!) audience. Spoken word video has, after all, really blown up over the past few years, with millions of people watching poems online, sharing them, and beginning to participate themselves. I believe this is a good thing.

What's maybe missing, to some extent, is the space to develop some critique skills that go beyond "I like this" or "I don't like this." We do this in classes, workshops, and writing circles, but not everyone has access to those. We do this in informal conversations with one-another, but again, not everyone has access to those. And since there aren't really a lot of big spoken word-focused blogs, podcasts, journals, etc. (in the same way that there are for, for example, Hip Hop, or traditional page poetry), this felt like a niche we could start to fill.

Because that process-- of figuring out why we like something, or analyzing what makes a particular poem work, or being able to identify the tools and techniques being used-- is bigger than just poetry. That's about cultivating curiosity and critical thinking. Ideally, more people will begin doing this, both through Button and on their own.

For now, here are the write-ups that I've done. Note: Button posts a new video pretty much every day, so I'm not writing up every single one-- just the ones they send me. I hope these are interesting and/or useful. Feel free to post your own thoughts, disagreements, and observations.

Dave Harris: To The Extent X Body Including its Fists Constitute "Weapons"

Sam Sax: Written to be Yelled at Trump Tower During a Vigil for The NEA

Bianca Phipps: Stay With Me

Donte Collins: New Country (after Safia Elhillo)

Hanif Abdurraqib: Watching A Fight At The New Haven Dog Park

Javon Johnson: Baby Brother

Blythe Baird: Yet Another Rape Poem

Hanif Abdurraqib: At My First Punk Rock Show Ever, 1998

William Evans: They Love Us Here

Jared Singer: Silence

Ariana Brown: Ode to Thrift Stores

Mitcholos: Cacophony

Alysia Harris: Joy

Carmen Gillespie: Blue Black Wet of Wood

Olivia Gatwood: When I Say We Are All Teen Girls

Franny Choi: Split Mouth

Billy Tuggle: Marvin's Last Verses

William Evans: Bathroom Etiquette

Talia Young: While My Love Sleeps I Cook Dinner

Bao Phi: Broken/English

Soups: The Dark Side of Being Mixed

Ashaki Jackson: The Public is Generally Self taught and Uninformed

Rudy Francisco: The Heart and the Fist

Hieu Minh Nguyen: The Translation of Grief

Isha Camara: Loudest Burial

Bianca Phipps: When the Boy Says He Loves My Body

Suzi Q Smith: Bones

Pages Matam, Elizabeth Acevedo, and G. Yamazawa: Unforgettable

Bernard Ferguson: Love Does Not Want This Body

Muna Abdulahi: Explaining Depression to a Refugee

Kevin Yang: Come Home

Danez Smith: Trees

Guante: A Pragmatist’s Guide to Magic

EJ Schoenborn: Controversial Opinion: In Defense of Cargo Shorts

(to be continued)

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

My Tedx Talk: "Five Things Art Taught Me About Activism" (featuring a new version of "Quicksand")

Here it is. If you want a summary, the talk is basically about how the relationship between art and activism is so much deeper than just art that happens to be about activist stuff, that there's a further connection in terms of process. The questions that artists ask themselves often mirror the questions that activists ask. The steps that artists take from idea to concept to art often mirror the steps that activists take from value to principle to action.

***Update (11/7/18): another poem, plus a consolidated list of activist resources, here***

My biggest worry is that the title of the talk might insinuate that it's "for" artists or people who are already deeply engaged in activist work. And it's not, really. This talk is for anyone who knows the world is messed up, and wants to do something about it. Just a few notes:

1. The talk opens with a revised version of my poem "Quicksand." I've always liked that poem, but have also always worried that it's too easy to misinterpret, to read it as a basic critique of slacktivism, or a call for action-for-action's sake; for me, it's something more nuanced. It's my own fault as a writer that that isn't more clear, but this talk gave me a chance to dig into the poem a little more.

2. The full text to that poem can be found here, and it's also included in my book. As for the text of the full talk, I'm working on a highly-reimagined version of it for my new book, but I'd be happy to email anyone requesting the text for accessibility's sake. The little verse at the end is from the Sifu Hotman (which is me, Dem Atlas, and Rube) song "Matches," something I've found myself performing more and more over the past year.

3. The talk also plays off the zine that me and Olivia Novotny made this past year; I'm currently working on a revised/updated version of that as well. Feel free to share!

Friday, November 10, 2017

Poems, Links, and Resources RE: #MeToo, Consent, and Rape Culture

RE: Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Roy Moore, Charlie Sheen, Tony Cornish, Louis CK, Dan Schoen, Donald Trump, and far too many others.

In my ongoing quest to break out of the thinkpiece cycle (where things happen in the world, and my first impulse is to write an essay to let people know "here's what I think about THIS," because there are plenty of other/better people doing that already), I figured I'd try to share something practical. What follows are some poem/videos, links, and resources for people trying to teach about consent, healthy sexuality, and dismantling rape culture. Feel free to add more in the comments.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Links and Resources Regarding the 2017 Minneapolis Election

It may go without saying, but let's say it: if you're frustrated about our political reality on a national and international level, one of the most powerful actions you can take is to engage on a local level. Our city council and mayor (and Parks Board!) have real power to affect people's lives. Additionally, local elections aren't just about candidates winning and losing; they're an opportunity for all of us to get more plugged in, and start paying closer attention to the level of government over which we have the most control. This post focuses on Minneapolis, but the same is true elsewhere. So what follows are a few resources:

1. For Those of Us Who Need More Information
Voices for Racial Justice, Pollen, and Rhymesayers collaborated on this fantastic voter guide. The guide features fairly in-depth candidate profiles, and those candidates' answers to a range of good questions (at least for those who bothered to answer). It also has links for you to find out what ward you're in, and how/where/when to vote. A perfect entry point, especially for new voters.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Page/Stage/Engage 2017 + #PowerPossibility w/ TruArtSpeaks

As some of you already know, I work with this organization in Minnesota called TruArtSpeaks. The organization's mission is to "cultivate literacy, leadership, and social justice through the study and application of Spoken Word and Hip Hop culture," and that comes to life through programs like the Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam series, the weekly ReVerb open mic, the Saint Paul Youth Poet Laureate program, and more.

Those are all big, public-facing programs, but an enormous part of our work is actually less visible, with youth leadership/development programs like the Youth Advisory Board and Apprenticeship Program. This work is never just about young people writing and performing; it's about the spaces that nourish that process, about how we work together, cross-generationally, to build capacity as movement-builders and change-makers. So in that spirit, ALL money raised between 9/15 and 10/15 will go directly to these youth leadership programs.

The legendary Danez Smith matched the first $1k raised. I'm matching the next $1k. Please consider donating today!

Related: my next Twin Cities show will be Friday, September 22 at the UMN's Whole Music Club. This will be our fourth year in a row doing Page/Stage/Engage, and I couldn't be more excited about this lineup. The event is FREE and open to the public, and will feature BdotCroc, Tish Jones, members of the #BeHeard17 cohort, DJ Just Nine, and me. Spread the word.

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

MPD150 and the Movement Toward a Police-Free Future

EDIT: the fundraiser was successful! Thanks to everyone who pitched in. Stay updated here.

image credit: hclou | #hclouart

is a community-based initiative challenging the narrative that police exist to protect and serve. By researching the Minneapolis Police Department’s history, reviewing current practices, and mapping responsible alternatives, we are committed to pursuing a police-free future. 

With that headline, I'd imagine that the people I'm in touch with will have one of two reactions:
  1. "Cool; I've been looking for more opportunities to support this work in a concrete way."
  2. "What? We need the police; I agree that reforms are needed too, but that's too much."
For the former, thank you. Please donate between now and 9/18; this group is gearing up to do some great work, both on a research/policy level and on an arts/narrative-shifting level, and every dollar counts.

For the latter, please read the "Frequently-Asked Questions" section on the website. These FAQs do a lot to address the most common arguments as to why police abolition is too radical, too unrealistic, or too dangerous. Of course, you may still have questions or disagreements after reading it; that's good. The website also has a great resources list, featuring free, immediately-accessible readings that dig a little deeper into the concept.

This campaign isn't just about researching and pushing specific policy points related to budgets and community resource allocation; it's also about asking all of us to think bigger. To ask more critical questions. To imagine something better. I don't expect everyone to know to jump on board 100% right away; I'm just asking people to have an open mind. Explore the website, dig into the readings, and get involved, if you are so moved. There's more on the way!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Poems and Resources for Educators on Understanding and Disrupting White Supremacy

EDIT (8/5/19): This was originally posted in 2017 and was focused on Charlottesville, but I've since added even more resources to this list, and broadened the scope to disrupting and dismantling white supremacy in general. That's work that has to happen early, and teachers can play an important role.

Confederate statue in Durham torn down; image from here.
At the top of this week, the Washington Post published this piece by Valerie Strauss: The first thing teachers should do when school starts is talk about hatred in America. Here’s help.

Update: a couple other good links:
Those links contain more links to resources, readings, and lesson plans, and may be a good place to start for educators who know that current events matter, and that not talking about Charlottesville makes a statement to your students that's just as loud as any conversation or critical exploration.

In that spirit, and because my background is in using spoken word as a tool for narrative-building and opening up spaces for authentic dialogue, I wanted to share a few poems that have been on my mind lately. As always, list-making is tricky. This is not a list of the "best" poems about this topic, or even a list of just "poems about racism." This is a list of poems that might be useful for educators looking for artistic work that can prompt some critical thinking about hate, white supremacy, and the recent events in Charlottesville.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Guante: A Furious Vexation (Free Download + Lyrics)

Recorded, engineered, and arranged by SEE MORE PERSPECTIVE at Luv 'n' Dedication Studio. 

New project: it's one 15-minute track, but it's a bunch of songs. Free download. A few notes:

This is a kind of quick-and-dirty remix project, featuring a collage of previously-released songs and guest verses performed over jacked beats-- a Hip Hop tradition. For what it's worth, I do have two other new projects in the works (both featuring original production and all-new lyrics); I made "A Furious Vexation" really just for fun. It's a summer project, recorded over a handful of hours in See More Perspective's studio.

I mean, that being said, there's also a more serious side to this. As "political" as pretty much all of my work is, I haven't posted/talked a lot about this president. Part of that is because I know that my audience, or at least the vast majority of it, is already on "my side" when it comes to him, and I try to engage with political issues from an angle of challenging the audience, or encouraging critical thinking from new angles, blah blah blah. And this project is a bit more straightforward. But I think that's okay. Sometimes you just have to add your voice to the chorus.

I know that the references here are messy and weird. The title and the vocal samples are from Fury Road. The album art is a cropped image of Akira sitting on a throne of ruins. The songs include references to Game of Thrones, Lovecraft, vampires, and other sci-fi/pop cultural things. And of course, none of that stuff really goes together. But then again, it kind of does, especially in the context of this particular president. That's one reason why Hip Hop--specifically-- is so important: it gives us space to sample, deconstruct, and recontextualize, to make connections that aren't always obvious, to be both blunt and subtle, both direct and subversive. And in times like these, I think that flexibility is important.

And as always, channel that rage into action, whenever/wherever/however possible.

So yeah, check it out. It's a good length for a quick workout, a drive to work, or sharpening your sword. Find all of my albums here. Here are the full lyrics for this project:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Eaux Claires Recap + Being at a Music Festival While the World Burns

photo by @_scotify
Just getting back from performing at Eaux Claires. Definitely one of the most unique (and best) experiences I've had as an artist. This is not related to what this post is really about, but a quick shout out to the staff, who was beyond nice and very professional; the festival really does have a vibe that's different from a lot of other big events. I also got to hear "California Stars" live, which was cool.

I did two hour-long shifts in the Escape installation, a "tiny house" where 4-7 people would come in for five minutes at a time to hear a couple poems. I also got to participate in a handful of pop-up performances on other stages (both solo and along with John Mark Creative's crew), performing for a few hundred more people.

I mention those numbers because this was also the weekend the Yanez decision came in. Being at a festival like Eaux Claires, I can't say that I didn't have some stereotypes or preconceived notions in my head about just how much people would want to talk about that. Thankfully, everyone seemed a lot less in the mood for escapism than I would have thought. I opened every performance I did with this poem, and had many powerful conversations with people about the dissonance of being at a music festival while friends and family were protesting, getting arrested, and/or just hurting.

Obviously, I don't have any answers or profound things to say here. I'm just appreciative that people were willing to engage, and that many other artists (though it could always be more) were willing to take time out of their sets to make sure we say Philando Castile's name. It's a small act, of course, too small, but still worth doing. Activism can't just happen in "activist spaces" like rallies and social media bubbles; it's also about how we intentionally integrate an activist practice into every facet of our lives-- from the things we do for fun, to our workplaces, to our schools, and beyond.

Another theme of the past few days has been thinking about the many different ways that people process: grieving, expressing outrage, marching, donating to organizations, making vows and commitments, just *being* with loved ones, etc. It's all valid. For me, I find strength in sharing resources, especially for people out there who do feel powerless (as we all do sometimes). So a few links to inform any potential next steps:
Feel free to add more in the comments.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Guante at the Eaux Claires Festival, June 16-17

photo on the right by Daniel Rangel
Excited to announce that I'll be performing at Eaux Claires this year. Specifically, I'll be participating as a writer/poet, doing a series of micro-readings throughout the festival. Musicians this year include Chance the Rapper, Wilco, Feist, Danny Brown, and many more, and everyone I've talked to about Eaux Claires has told me that it's a very unique, community-oriented concert/festival experience.

Get more information, and reserve tickets, here.

In other news:

1. Upworthy just shared my poem "How To Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist," so thanks both to them and to Button Poetry for that signal boost. Especially right now, challenging ourselves to see oppression and hate as something bigger than just interpersonal acts of bigotry feels pretty important.

2. Two quick links to pieces that I had originally written for Opine Season but have since migrated over to my site (and cleaned up a bit):
3. That second piece was written in collaboration with UyenThi Tran Myhre; find more of her fantastic work here:

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

New Work from See More Perspective, DC Edwards, Bao Phi, Fatima Camara, Big Quarters; Other Updates

March and April are always hectic: traveled to over a dozen colleges, served as a delegate at my local ward convention (go Jillia!), gave my first Tedx Talk (will share video as soon as it's up), working on new music, blah blah blah, so May feels like a great time to step back and try to get focused again. While I'm doing that, I thought I'd shout out a couple of Twin Cities friends of mine and their work:

1. New See More Perspective album: SEE MORE EYE JACK
See More always shows up with music that is timely, sharp, and well-crafted; he also, however, shows up with creative concepts that are both fun and meaningful. His latest project is inspired by Samurai Jack (a work that is already a genre-bending mashup), and if it were JUST a Samurai Jack-themed rap record, it'd be great. But it goes so much deeper than that, really paying tribute to its muse while expanding and transcending it at the same time. And it's just great hip hop on top of all that; definitely worth a listen.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

TedxUMN Talk on April 30

I'll be giving my first Tedx Talk on April 30 at the University of Minnesota (where I recently finished my grad studies). The theme is "catalyst," so yeah, there's lots to talk about. You can get tickets here, if you want to see it live.

Also, a more general update: I feel like I've written these words before, but this has been the busiest couple of months of my life. I think it's telling--and a good thing-- that that busy-ness hasn't translated to tons of "product," like new songs, poems, or blog posts. I'm trying to consciously shift some of my energy to other kinds of work-- generally, less-visible work. That being said, there is also some new stuff on the way. Thanks for reading/listening.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Endowment: A TruArtSpeaks Fundraiser on 4/15/17

...and also one of the best Hip Hop lineups you'll see all year.

Seriously, save some money and get your tickets early. Also, spread the word! This is very much a people-powered organization.

Additionally, we just wrapped up the 2017 Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series with a sold-out show at the Walker Art Center's McGuire Theater. Here's a recap:

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

On Pushing Back: People Power, Local Elections, and the 2017 MPLS Caucuses

***UPDATE: Give-a-Shit-MPLS's website is now live, and it's a one-stop shop for caucusing info.***

A few months ago, I worked with designer Olivia Novotny to create these zines, compact guides to plugging into activism and movement-building efforts. We've given out hundreds of them already, and I think the reason they've resonated with people is because they explicitly try to focus less on the power we don't have, and more on the power we do.

One vital part of that power-leveraging process is local politics. Here in Minneapolis, 2017 is a big year for city council races. I thought I'd share some resources related to that here, both so that my fellow MPLS people can get plugged in, and to look at our local races as one example of how important local politics are, wherever you live. A few points:

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Last Reminder: The #BeHeard17 Youth Poetry Slam FINALS This Saturday

Way back in January, I shared three reasons why everyone should be excited about this year's Be Heard series, presented by TruArtSpeaks. It has definitely lived up to expectations. Catch the FINALS bout this Saturday at the Walker Art Center-- get your tickets here.

And whether or not you can make it to this event, please consider supporting the work of TruArtSpeaks. Every donation makes it possible for more young (and not-so-young) people to have access to residencies, workshops, performance opportunities, and beyond.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

VIDEO: "Our Relationship is a Slowly Gentrifying Neighborhood" featuring Jayanthi Kyle

New video! Here's the official blurb:

Guante & Katrah-Quey's "Our Relationship is a Slowly Gentrifying Neighborhood" features singer (and constant presence at Twin Cities rallies and marches) Jayanthi Kyle lamenting the deeply personal loss of something that used to mean something. While using the standard structure of a love song, the track attempts to explore the human side of an issue that, for too many, is an abstraction, or "someone else's problem," if it's considered a problem at all.

The song exemplifies the philosophy of "Post-Post-Race," an album attempting to grapple with issues of race, racism and solidarity by pushing beyond platitudes and asking deeper, more challenging questions. Over Katrah-Quey's lush, vibrant production, Guante (along with an impressive roster of guests) reaches for root causes, explores his own complicity in the system, and tries to find pathways to action.

The full album is available here
(a portion of the proceeds benefits Twin Cities youth arts/activism organization TruArtSpeaks).

The video is directed by E.G. Bailey, fresh off appearances at the Tampere Film Festival, Riga International Film Festival, and Sundance Film Festival, where his short film, “New Neighbors,” was selected from tens of thousands of entries. Bailey (along with co-producer Sha Cage) was also responsible for Guante's move to Minneapolis back in 2007, so this video represents coming full-circle, and affirming that community comes first. Full credits:
  • Director: E.G. Bailey
  • Cinematographer: Anton Shavlik
  • Producers: E.G.Bailey & Sha Cage
  • Editors: E.G. Bailey & Anton Shavlik
  • Costume Design: Trevor Bowen
  • First Assistant Director: Sha Cage
  • First Assistant Camera: Casey Bargsten
  • Production Assistant: Autumn Compton
  • Colorist: Anton Shavlik
  • Storyboard Artist: Cecilia Hsu
  • Titles: Eroll Bilibani
  • a Freeztyle film


Friday, February 17, 2017

New Video: DUST (Day of Remembrance + #NoBanNoWall Spoken Word)

The Japanese American Citizen's League asked me to write a piece for the 2017 Day of Remembrance (the day in 1942 that Executive Order 9066 was signed, requiring internment of all Americans of Japanese ancestry), connecting it to current issues regarding xenophobia and anti-immigrant hate.

Check out this story for a bit more background; there are a ton of other resources online as well. As the poem talks about, this is the kind of story I feel like a lot of people know about in a general sense, but that few internalize and really grapple with. And we need to be thinking about it, especially right now. Full text below.

Finally please support organizations working to build immigrant power and/or fight xenophobia, Islamophobia, and hate of all kinds. Locally, that might mean MIRAC, Navigate MN, CAIR MN, the Young Muslim Collective, or others. Find more at the MN Activist Project's database.

Also relevant, I have another new video up this week on Button Poetry's channel. It's called "How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist." A few extended thoughts (plus the text) on it here.

Monday, January 30, 2017

If "This Is Not Normal," Our Responses Can't Be Either

image credit: the normal coalition
(A conversation between me and UyenThi Tran Myhre originally published at Opine Season.)

KTM: In arts spaces, we talk a lot about the importance of creating catchy “hooks,” capturing an enormous, complex concept in an easily-digestible soundbite. “We Are the 99%,” for example, is a good hook. “Black Lives Matter” is a good hook. “Water is Life” is a good hook. I’m thinking about all of this in the context of what I would say is this past month’s big hook: “This Is Not Normal.”

UTM: I keep seeing and hearing reminders that “this is not normal,” from tweets, to buttons, to my friends and colleagues repeating it to themselves and to each other. When I open my social media feeds, the headlines and sentiments are full of anger and fear – the latest Executive Order from Trump, stories of real humans being harmed by those orders, and the reminders: “It’s only been one week.” “He’s doing what he said he would do.” “This is not normal.”

KTM: Even though we have to acknowledge that “normal” has meant different things to different people over the history of this country, and that there’s a certain measure of privilege in seeing what’s happening right now as a crisis (when various communities have been in crisis long before Trump), I get why the phrase works as a hook. “This is not normal” affirms multiple things: that we’re living in an important historical moment, that people who agree are not alone in their frustration or anger, and that we, as a community, are not going to be lulled into complacency, assuming that our institutions will “save” us. From the Muslim ban, to the border wall, to having a white supremacist like Steve Bannon at the highest levels of power in this country, it’s on all of us to push back.

UTM: I’m definitely cycling through feelings of hopelessness and despair, fatigue and sadness, anger and wanting to take action. I keep thinking of that Mr. Rogers quote: When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.

There are a lot of people who care that this is not normal. It helps me to think about what we can do next – what can we do about it?

KTM: Exactly – and I’m thinking that it’s not just about taking action; it’s about taking action that reflects the “abnormality” of the times, action that is fundamentally different, or deeper, or more challenging, than whatever action we’ve taken before. We’ve seen people who have never called their reps before call their reps. We’ve seen people who have been uncomfortable with the idea of direct action, or protest that is “disruptive,” come around to the necessity of these kinds of actions. For activists, this is a real base-building moment. For people who don’t identify as activists (or haven’t in the past), this can be a moment of realization: since things are not normal, our responses can’t be either.

UTM: I know a lot of people who have never shown up to a rally before march in the Women’s March, and go to protests over the weekend to resist the #MuslimBan. There’s this great Twitter thread from Sarah Jaffe, who reminds us that these protests didn’t come out of “nowhere,” but are in fact borne out of organizations that have been planning rapid responses to deportations and bans. This was really helpful framing for me, because I see a lot of people who automatically dismiss protesting as a way to force change, as well as folks who seem to think that “spontaneous protests” are the only thing that we are doing to resist. As Sarah Jaffe concludes in her thread, “If you want to stop Trump, it’s going to take organizing. Join orgs, support them, sign up for email & text blasts.”

KTM: Of course, we all come to activism at different times, from different angles, and I think it’s cool to see both the most hardcore organizers and the most previously apolitical people challenging themselves right now, in different ways. There are so many levels to this. For some people, “action” might be dramatic, like moving to a swing state, changing careers in order to do more social justice-oriented work, or even (for people in positions of authority) refusing to obey unjust orders. For others, it could be a combination of smaller actions.It could be using Lyft instead of Uber, and using unionized cabs when possible. It could be about using a worksheet like this to commit to regularly reaching out to your representatives. If you have the capacity to do so, it could also be about confirming what percentage of your income you can set aside to support the organizations doing so much right now (from the ACLU, to Planned Parenthood, to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, to many more), not just through one-time donations, but through regular, ongoing support.

UTM: Right. I’m making a point to schedule donations to local organizations that I support, like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, the Young Muslim Collective, and The Yarn Mission. As someone who is supremely introverted, I know my strengths are in working with the people I know, in my own spheres of influence. I don’t consider myself an organizer, but I take comfort in the fact that there are organizers out there who are taking concrete actions to resist, and I can support that in different ways. I might not have the physical or emotional bandwidth to attend every rally or march, and at the same time, I know that there are so many ways to make a difference, to feel like I do have the power to do something. Beyond monetary contributions, what else can we do?

KTM: Yes; defaulting to “donate money” can be harmful when so many people just don’t have the economic security to do that. But there’s always something that can be done. Signal boosting activists through social media channels is good. Talking to people in our circles is good. Showing up (whether physically or in other ways) to marches, rallies, and actions is good. But I keep coming back to that phrase: “This is not normal.” I’m curious: for you, how does that realization impact your response? Do you see your work shifting in order to reflect the “not normal-ness” of the times?

UTM: I work with some really dedicated, passionate, and creative people. We started writing “gratefuls” on post-its, that are saved in a journal, at the end of every weekly staff meeting. The “grateful” is a specific moment, or idea, related to our work. It’s from research that shows that taking a moment to intentionally think about gratitude can have a positive impact on our lives. In these times, I think what would also have a personal, positive impact on my life would be adding a weekly commitment to my routine and sharing that commitment with a partner, to help me stay accountable. I have access to spaces where I can help others do this, as well, from my family, to my college roommates, to my peers. I definitely need to keep telling myself that this is not normal, and I know I will feel more hopeful/less helpless if I can be actionable in how I respond in this not-normal time. What about you, considering your role as an artist and educator, and the platforms and spaces that you have access to?

KTM: I wrote about a lot of what I’m thinking in my column last week on how art and artists can support movement-building efforts. But one thing that this conversation is making me think more about is how best to get past the “bubble effect.” If “normal” for me is just creating art that I think is cool, that gets heard by my friends and peers in my city, these not-so-normal times might be a good excuse to think more critically about audience – not just in terms of the art itself, but how it’s distributed, where it’s performed, how much it costs, and how people plug into the experience beyond just being passive listeners.

Like you, I’ve also been thinking a lot about routine. For so many of us, especially those of us with a little bit of economic security or privilege, the daily routine can be really hard to break out of. And I think we need to. For me, that means looking at my to-do list and challenging myself to see the stuff that isn’t on there, because it isn’t a specific action item – the more ambitious projects, the collaborative opportunities, etc. Because it’s so easy – for me at least – to say “yeah, I’m doing good work,” when “doing good work” should be a beginning, not an end. “This is not normal” shouldn’t just be an affirmation; it should be a call-to-action.

UTM: It can be both. Millennial that I am, I found an affirmation and a call-to-action on Twitter that I’ll be repeating to myself, from Valarie Kaur: So what do we do now? Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe.” Then “Push.”

Friday, January 20, 2017

Our Fear Is Valid, and So Is Our Courage: On Art and Artists in Trump's USA

A nice photo of me, but look at the writing on the board. These aren't conversations I ever had in traditional arts education spaces, and I think they're ones that we need to have.
(originally published at Opine Season)

In my inbox right now, I have invites to four different panel discussions on the role of art and artists in the age of Trump. I’m sure they’re happening all over the country, so I wanted to share a few thoughts.

I’ve written a lot about the relationship between art, artists, and movement-building. It would be inaccurate to say that that conversation is more important now than it was last year, or ten years ago—things were urgent and scary before Trump too—and artists have always been part of social and political movements. But I also want to recognize that for a lot of people in my community, this feels different. Maybe it shouldn’t, and maybe some of us should interrogate that feeling. But, if nothing else, this could be an opportunity to have a deeper, more critical conversation about the role of art and artists in resisting fascism, supporting our communities, and building a movement for justice.

So I’m revisiting some of that earlier work, and trying to work out—for myself, and for anyone who might be interested—what a responsible artistic practice looks like in this particular historical moment. I also want to recognize that art has multiple functions, and that it isn’t productive to attempt to hold everyone to the same standards. So what follows is much less five powerpoint-ready commandments or magic keys and much more just questions that I’m trying to ask myself in 2017 and beyond.

1. How Do We Come to Terms with the Fact that There Is No “Neutral?”

Let’s be clear: the attitude of “I’m just going to do my thing and leave politics to the politicians” is an attitude that supports the status quo. And the status quo is unacceptable. Art impacts people, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Artistic protest matters, and so does the lack of artistic protest. Fascists don’t need us to join them; they just need us to not talk about fascism.

For those of us who already engage with social and political issues (or those of us for whom these issues are inextricably bound to our identities), this is easy; for those of us who do not, sure, it’s more of a challenge. But I’d rather frame that challenge as an opportunity, rather than a burden. As the rest of this list will explore, that opportunity is bigger than just writing “message songs.” We can think more holistically about what “being engaged” means—but we have to be engaged.

News came in this week that Trump might finally be able to achieve something that the GOP has wanted for years—defunding the NEA and other federal support for the arts. It’s important to note that federal funding for the arts is already a beyond-minuscule part of the budget, so these kinds of efforts are much less about saving money and much, much more about making a symbolic statement about dissent.

Conservatives want to shut artists up, because artists present counter-narratives that challenge the status quo. With all of this happening in the background, this means that we need to dissent. We need to keep sharing our stories and counter-narratives, and we need to fiercely challenge the status quo.

2. How Can We Know Our Strengths, While Also Acknowledging Our Weaknesses?

Art is powerful—it moves larger conversations, provides frameworks that can lead to a deeper understanding of the issues, inspires and provides emotional support, educates and challenges, reaches audiences that politicians and activists can’t always reach, and much more.

But art alone won’t defeat fascism. It won’t protect our families and neighbors from ICE, or police violence, or defunded schools, or banks foreclosing on homes, or hate crimes. If we really want to tap into the power of art, I think that we have to be realistic about its limitations too. Now is not the time for disconnected, love-and-light proclamations about how “all we need is more poetry” or whatever.

Because we do need more poetry, but I’m less interested in art as some mystical force for change, and more interested in the power that art can bring to bear when it is organically, intentionally integrated into movements. I believe that progressive change is the result of organized activist movements. So how might we, as artists, break out of our arts community bubbles and engage in meaningful, concrete ways with the activists and organizers doing the everyday work of building these movements? Again, for many artists, this is simply how they already operate. For others, though, it takes some extra intentionality and effort. See next point.

3. In What Ways Can We Think ‘Beyond the Benefit?’ What Do We Have to Offer Beyond Our Art Itself?

Related to the previous two points, I want to link to this piece I wrote last year: “Beyond the Benefit: Ten Ways Artists Can Help Build and Support Movements.” An excerpt:
I believe that as artists, we have more to offer than our art. I’m not asking artists to take leadership roles in social movements they may or may not know much about. I’m also not asking anyone to radically change their style or preferred subject matter, or to be someone that they’re not. I’m just saying that artists occupy strategically useful spaces in our communities, and have access to resources and networks that can really help movements grow. In a perfect world, we’d all get directly involved in activist campaigns, but I know that reality doesn’t always allow that to happen. So I’m trying to think of spaces of synergy. We can cheerlead stuff when it happens. But we can also use our platforms to help make stuff happen.

4. How Might We Take Both Process and Product More Seriously?

Of course, every artist is invested in some measure of “process” (with whom we work, our guiding philosophies, the journey that the art takes on its way to being released, our own personal growth as artists, etc.) and some measure of “product” (a critically-acclaimed album, a viral video, a profitable book, etc.). I hope this isn’t a radical statement, but I’d like to encourage myself (and others, if this applies to you as well), to think more critically about both this year.

Because process matters: being an artist can’t just be about capitalist transactions, and what we do has so much value beyond how many views or likes it gets. Let’s be more intentional about the community we build, the support we offer one another, and our own mental/physical health as we create. Let’s affirm, once and for all, that identity matters, that power and positionality impact our access to resources and audiences, and then act accordingly—opening up new spaces, supporting new distribution models, and engaging in more effective, symbiotic collaborations.

But product also matters, at least if we are invested in creating art that impacts other people. If you’re not, that’s perfectly valid; art can be about the joy that you get from making it, or having fun with your friends; maybe your art and your activism exist independent of each other. But for those of us who do strive to create transformational art, I believe that now is a good time to start taking certain elements of the process more seriously, in order to create a more effective product.
  • Are we throwing that big concert just to say that we threw it, or are we creating a space of intentional growth and transformation, a space where people can connect not just to ideas and emotions, but to organizations and other human beings too? Are we putting in the work to make sure people actually show up?
  • Is our work community-oriented, or does it just *look* community-oriented in a grant application?
  • Is that song or poem that we poured so much of ourselves into done once it’s released, or are we willing to put in the work to ensure that it reaches people? Numbers aren’t everything, but they are something.
  • Who is our audience (target, likely, ideal)? What are we attempting to share with them? How do our own identities impact the kind of message we can/should share with them?
  • In our quest to honor process, are we creating products that, on a basic level, just don’t move people? Where is the balance? How are we– as poets, musicians, visual artists, dancers, and beyond– taking our craft seriously and striving to improve?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but I am trying to keep them in mind.

5. How Do We Survive? How Do We Thrive?

This tweet from Trungles really stuck with me, because it captures so much of what we’re talking about here.

Artists are people. The archetype of the “starving artist” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Both concrete policy and the resulting cultural frameworks about the role of art in society contribute to the mythology of artists as eternal sufferers, who create art not in spite of that suffering, but because of it.

And of course, great art can come from anger, frustration, sadness, and cynicism. But it can also come from joy. It can also come from having the personal security to just sit down and create, without worrying about being able to keep the lights on. It can also come from existing within a community that values the arts, and makes that value concrete by shifting institutional policy to support and develop artists– whether through defending art programs in schools, supporting local artists by paying them what they’re worth, increasing the reach/inclusivity of grant programs, and beyond. As artists, we don’t have to just passively hope that we can benefit from this stuff; we can take a more active role in making it all happen.

Artists are people.

That phrase relates to the previous point, but it also relates to the larger idea here of artists in relationship with movement-building efforts. As Bertold Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” We have agency. We are not just witnesses. Our work is not just to document the struggle, but to actively support it– with our art, sure, but with whatever other force we are willing to bring to bear as well.

These are all just preliminary thoughts. This is a process, after all. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Limited Edition Lyric Shirts, Hoodies, Stickers, and More

A friend recently asked for permission to create a handful of designs using my lyrics. They turned out pretty cool, and I'd love for people to check them and maybe pick up some 2017 armor. The site offers a variety of designs and sizes, but they'll all only be available until January 30. Here are the options:

"There is no light at the end of this tunnel/
so it's a good thing we brought matches."
--from Sifu Hotman's "Matches"

"To every ancestor who kept my song alive/
I swear on your unmarked graves, I will sing it 'til I die."
--also from Sifu Hotman's "Matches"

"We are more than the sum of our parts/
They are less than the sum of our fears."
--from Guante & Big Cats' "To Young Leaders"

You can find the songs themselves here as well.

Friday, January 06, 2017

Three Reasons to Check Out the 2017 Be Heard MN Youth Poetry Slam Series

Presented by TruArtSpeaks, #BeHeard17 starts in January in multiple venues, including a bout in Duluth (click the image for the full schedule) and ends with the Finals slam on March 25 at the Walker Art Center. This is the five-year (!) anniversary of the Be Heard series.

If the idea of a poetry slam is new to you, here's a good introduction. Be Heard is also a powerful introduction to the culture and the spirit of slam. Here are three quick reasons to check it out:

1. If you're a youth poet in MN, you can still register
Before we get to the reasons why people should show up, let's talk about why people might want to participate. Poetry slams are, after all, about creating space for all of us to be in community with each other, tell our stories, and share our work. So if you're a poet with a MN address and are between the ages of 13-19, Be Heard is an opportunity for you to perform for a big, supportive audience, meet other young people doing this work, sharpen your craft, and just have some fun. It's not about "winning," but if you do end up as one of the top six youth poets in the state, you'll join a cohort that will write and perform together, as well as rep MN at Brave New Voices. Get more info and register for any one of the five preliminary bouts here.

2. For everyone else, let's listen to young people
Poetry slams aren't the only spaces where young people-- especially young people from under-or-misrepresented communities-- can tell their stories and loudly affirm their values, opinions, and ideas, but they are one of the most public. And for those of us who are not youth anymore, it's really on us to make sure that we're listening-- especially right now. These young people are the experts on their own experience, and have wisdom to offer anyone who cares about community, social justice, education, and a wide range of other topics.

3. The point is not the points; the point is some really incredible poetry
I probably say this every year, but the poetry shared through Be Heard isn't just some of the best "youth spoken word" in the state every year, it's some of the most thoughtful, well-crafted, challenging art being made by anyone in Minnesota. Of course, poetry slams are democratic by nature, so some participants may just be starting out, or finding their voices. But every year, the series contains moments that rank up there with the most powerful arts experiences I have, anywhere in our community. A few examples:

2016 Be Heard team members Duncan Slagle and Eshay Brantley performing on BNV Finals stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC:

One of my favorite poems by Donte Collins (I'll be hosting his book release party on 1/20 too):

I could share a bunch more videos, but I'll end with this, a very cool feature on Be Heard and TruArtSpeaks produced by Ryan Stopera for the Twin Cities Daily Planet: