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:
1. SIFU HOTMAN (Guante x Dem Atlas x Rube)
This summer, I collaborated with producer Rube and MC (and recent Rhymesayers signee) Dem Atlas for a three-song suite called Sifu Hotman– free digital download or on vinyl. It’s definitely one of my favorite projects I’ve ever been part of, and my first vinyl ever. It’s also been an honor to play shows and just build with these guys– two of the most genuine, cool people I know. We also collaborated with PCP to film in-studio videos of all three songs:

Between March and right now, I’ve written 31 op-eds for new MN-based op-ed co-op Opine Season. The brainchild of Matt Peiken, the site has featured opinion writing from some of my favorite Twin Cities writers: Kao Kalia Yang, Chaun Webster, Ricardo Levins Morales, Vina Kay and more, plus guest-pieces from writers like David Mura and Bao Phi. I’m honored to be in such good company, and am very proud of how much of an impact (both in terms of raw traffic stats and community chatter) the site has made, despite being brand-new and completely community-driven. My full archive is here, though here are a few standout posts:

3. NEW POEM VIDEOS, including “A Visit From the PC Police”
I got to work with Linebreak Media twice this year, and always had a great experience. I love how this one turned out. Also released a bunch of other videos, and finally got serious about cultivating a presence on YouTube. Speaking of that…

My friends at Button Poetry have been capturing performance poetry all over the country, and really blew up this year. My poem “Ten Responses to the Phrase ‘Man Up'” got featured on Upworthy, and my poem “REACH” got released right before the holiday season. I also had a piece published in Button’s e-book “Viral,” which you can order here.

I had the pleasure of working with Tish Jones of TruArtSpeaks on rebuilding and rebranding the youth spoken-word scene in Minnesota. We traveled to a bunch of schools, met hundreds of young artists, and Tish did a hell of a job organizing a whole series of slams to pick a team to represent MN at Brave New Voices. I was the coach, and it was inspiring to witness the growth of these brilliant young artists over the course of an entire summer. Even bigger things coming next year.

A big part of my work that doesn’t get as much attention is working in schools. Through COMPAS, I engage in artist residencies in middle and high schools throughout Minnesota. Sometimes these are just performances, but they’re usually week-long residencies, where I get to teach multiple classes every day and basically just talk about writing and performance with hundreds of MN students. It’s an incredible gig, and this year I was in dozens of different schools.

Aside from working with teens, I also got to travel to dozens of colleges and universities all over the country this year. Between performing, guest-lecturing and facilitating social justice-oriented workshops, I was on the road for much of the year. One standout gig was at El Centro College in Dallas, where I got to stay for a full week and really engage with students. If you want to bring me to YOUR school, check this out.

While college performances are my bread-and-butter, I still get to play the occasional rap show here and there, including a few big ones this year. I played the CD release parties of Mixed Blood Majority, Common Labor, See More Perspective and Homeless; opened for Saul Williams, performed in the First Ave. Mainroom again, played at the MN State Fair, continued the Hip Hop Against Homophobia series, and played a bunch of festivals: the Red Hot Art & Music Festival, the Future History Festival, the Phillips Music Festival, the Grounds & Sounds Festival, and more I’m probably forgetting. I also performed a commissioned piece at the Child Neurology Foundation gala. I also gave a few keynote speeches, played more benefits and fundraisers than anyone else in the universe, and generally just kept busy. Ongoing list of past shows here.

Beyond Sifu Hotman, I got to release a few random songs this year, really just for fun. The video above was shot and edited by Adam J. Dunn and is a personal favorite. Free downloads:

A lot of what I do is stuff you’ll never hear about– consulting, curriculum development, mentorship stuff, etc. I also did a complete overhaul of my website; check out the revamped “resources” page in particular. It’s been the busiest, most exhausting and most rewarding year of my life, and next year should be even more wild. Keep up on Twitter and Facebook. New music video and new mixtape coming in EARLY 2014 too. Thanks!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.